Getting young people back into the office will require carrots as well as sticks

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You might be able to get toothpaste back in the tube, but not people. Flexible working is here to stay in the UK – as you can see from the fact that weekday ridership on public transport stays stubbornly beneath pre-pandemic levels.

Charlotte Boffey, UK Head of Services at Employment Hero looks at a survey of UK knowledge workers which found that while there had been a general “return to the office”, many workers were not returning full-time. A fifth were still working fully remote, and 42% were working in both the office and remotely – more than the 36% of people who had returned to the office full-time.

And a clear preference emerged too: 88% wanted to work at home at least one day a week. But this overwhelming preference for flexibility was not evenly distributed: Young people and non-managerial professionals were far more likely to prefer flexible working than senior executives and employers. 33% of 25-34 year-olds said they would likely quit if forced back into the office full-time, for example.

Despite all this – and the very tight labour market – some senior executives are still quite keen to see their teams come back full time, or at least more of the time. 43% of respondents who had returned to the office full time or part time since the pandemic said they had done so because their employer told them too, with just 19% saying they preferred working from the office.

If you’re one of those senior people pushing for a return, I have two bits of advice.

The first is to take a step back and reconsider how badly you want this. What is making you anxious about employees working from home? If you feel they aren’t being productive or you can’t keep tabs on them, it is unlikely that a forced return to the office will magically make them more productive. Getting an exact read on your culture through an anonymous survey could be a good first step to work out if your issues with remote working are really to do with remote working, or whether there are wider issues plaguing your workforce.

You should also consider the huge range of people who you are shutting out of working from your company by insisting on in-office working – a lot of amazing people around the region and the world could want to work for your company, but can’t move to where-ever you are based. And there’s a solid chance that some of your younger bright stars will just quit.

The second piece of advice, if you do still want to go through with it, is to consider making the office as attractive as possible. It can’t be all stick and no carrot. Our survey showed us some of the biggest reasons remote workers wanted to stay remote, asking what they did not miss about the office. 39% cited “the commute” as one of the top three things they didn’t miss, 20% cited waking up early, 19% cited the extra expense of food and transport involved with coming in, and 17% cited people interrupting them at their desk.

These problems are partially addressable. Offering to pay for an employee’s commute could make them seriously reconsider how often they want to come in, as could a slightly later start time, which makes most commutes much more bearable. A good coffee machine and a solid pantry of healthy snacks could also change the equation -although employers should also not forget the basics, such as a microwave and kitchen full of clean utensils.

The pre-pandemic office is not going to come back in full. But that doesn’t mean we’re all staying at home forever either. When venturing out into this new normal, humility will help – the way you did things in the past may not be as true and trusted as before.

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