PODCAST S2/E3: Is it Time to Get Back to the Office?

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In this week’s episode we talk about the increasing pressure on employees to return to the office.

Alex and I discuss the problems created by those assuming that this pandemic is over and how we feel employers and employees should handle the current situation.

This is a pretty thorny issue but we feel that there is plenty of light at the end of the tunnel.

Included in this podcast:

  • Are we really post-pandemic? (0:28)
  • Sir Alan Sugar and the push to go back to the office (3:10)
  • What constitutes good behaviour from an employer? (10:29)
  • How can employers make their employees feel safe? (15:46)
  • What can employees who feel unsafe or who simply want to continue working from home do? (19:28)
  • Recap (27:15)

Supplementary Links and Information

Full Transcription

We have edited some repeat words and unclear passages to enhance readability.

ALEX: Welcome to the HomeWorkingClub podcast. I’m Alex and, for the first time in a long time, I’m with Ben. Ben, how are you?

BEN: I’m good thank you, Alex. How are you?

ALEX: I’m not too bad. Now, we’re not going to talk about the weather. We agreed on that, didn’t we?

BEN: We’re not going to talk about the weather and we’re not going to talk about football. We’re recording this the day after England was knocked out of the European Cup, so we’ve got all of our sorrow out of the way privately before we started recording.

ALEX: And we may both have slightly husky voices from shouting at the television.

So, today we are talking about “Is it time to get back to the office?”

I suspect you’ll have seen some news reports… there’s obviously a bit of pressure, and you may be feeling that yourself… to go back to the way of working pre-pandemic, back in the office.

Is it time to go back, Ben?

BEN: Well, an interesting thing you said is pre-pandemic, and I think… to read a lot of what it says in the news and to listen to what a lot of politicians are saying… it’s almost like we’re assuming that we’re post-pandemic now.

And I don’t think that’s particularly realistic. I think it’s how it’s being presented to a lot of people, but I think we’re still very much mid-pandemic, especially when you look at it globally speaking, as well. There are a lot of countries that are in far different positions to others.

Using the UK, where we are, as an example. We’re in a very strange position right now because we’ve had a very good, very strong vaccine rollout. A lot of people have been vaccinated, but we also have massively rising cases and slower rising hospitalizations. And I’m not entirely convinced now is the time to start thinking that we are post-pandemic.

ALEX: Fair, Fair. Yeah, you know, we don’t know what the future holds.

I think, in the world of pandemics… I suspect, from what a lot of people have said, we were quite lucky that COVID-19 was the first global pandemic of this type that hit the way it did. We could have had something like this five, six, seven years ago, easily.

These sorts of respiratory viruses have been around and they are likely to be with us for much longer to come. So, even if it’s not COVID-19, it may be, you know, COVID-23 or COVID-24 or something like that in the future.

I don’t think we’re ever going to be truly in a post-pandemic world. Even if this particular variant does disappear.

BEN: Absolutely.

I’m currently running a survey, which some of the people listening may have either taken part in or seen… I haven’t collated all the responses yet but I did have a quick look through before we started recording.

One of the questions I asked was, “Do people feel that we are through the pandemic? Is it drawing to a close?” And 60% of the people ticked either the box for “Uncertain” or “Actually, it’s only just begun”. So, less than half of the people who responded to the survey actually believe that this current pandemic is drawing to a close.

I think the nature of this discussion is such that no one’s even convinced that we are through it yet. But there is still a lot being said about whether or not people should get back to the office.

ALEX: You say no one is convinced that we are through it, but unfortunately, it does appear that some people are convinced that we’ve got through it and those people tend to be people who employ large numbers of people, in some cases.

BEN: Yes. Are we going to mention Lord Alan Sugar yet?

ALEX: Well, you just have.

BEN: Yeah, well, he is one of the people who is being vocal about this at the moment here in the UK. For those in the US, in case you’re unaware of who Lord Alan Sugar is, he is the entrepreneur who formed Amstrad, the computer company, and also the host of the UK version of The Apprentice.

He has had a lot of backlash for saying on Twitter, “Some people may have become complacent liking this new style of working. Well those folk will never work for me”.

He’s had a lot of abuse for this. One follower said, “Yeah, I want to ride on a packed train for an hour and a half each way so the sandwich shop can charge me £15 for a sandwich, a packet of crisps and a small can of Diet Coke. Sounds like an awesome plan.” Definitely sarcasm there.

So, yeah, he is one of the people, and he’s not the only one, who is very pro getting everything back to the office, back to normal. He’s not alone in it, but he is far from having every business leader agree with him. A lot of them disagree with him a lot, including the heads of Salesforce, HSBC, Coin base, to name a few… who are all saying that they will be allowing more flexible, remote and home working arrangements, ongoing.

ALEX: I think it’s interesting that, probably 6 to 8 months ago, when people were mooting returning to the office you’d find… and I suspect it was large companies that have large amounts of real estate in city centres, definitely wanting to do what was the easiest solution for them, which is to fill the offices back up again.

And I think that what you have found now is that some of those more enlightened companies… and as is ever the case, quite often startups… quite often companies that are more technology-based actually will find it a lot easier to divest themselves of their large office real estate and have a more mobile workforce.

I certainly spoke to one company where they found it very difficult initially to have a completely remote workforce going from office-based. But actually what they do now have is… they’ve found that some of their employees have moved country… actually they now have a 24-hour operation, which they would never have been able to do if they were tied to an office.

And that’s something we’ve noticed in previous podcasts. You can actually now have 24-hour customer service if you want to. Which totally wouldn’t have been possible for a smaller company that was at a fixed location.

BEN: Yeah, very much so. And the one word you said there that I really honed in on is enlightened. I do strongly feel that it is very unenlightened to not be open to these things.

I think we could have learned from the pandemic. There’s a lot we could have learned from the pandemic in terms of how communities bunch together and all the rest of it. I think it’s a crying shame that we’re starting to see division and polarisation on this issue and so many other issues.

Let’s assume we are starting to come out of this particular pandemic. I think it’s a terrible shame that this is how it’s manifesting… that everyone’s just finding new stuff to argue about. We could have been so much more innovative about this!

There is some good news and that’s that among 50 UK companies… it was reported on Tech Republic… 43 out of the 50 biggest companies in the UK have said that they will be continuing with embracing a mix of home and office work. So, that’s way more than half… 86% here in the UK.

ALEX: Sorry, 43 out of 50 is way more than half? This is breaking news, Ben! [laughs]

BEN: [laughing] I thought I worked out 86% quite quickly there.

ALEX: That’s astonishing maths.

BEN: Quick maths.

86% of companies are being open to it, which, I think, make the likes of Alan Sugar look like the dinosaurs that they are, really, on this issue.

ALEX: It’s interesting that you and I both work with a wide variety of companies and… even some companies which I would consider to be dinosaurs and certainly aren’t fleet-footed tech cloud-based operations.

Very, very building-based operations have seen how well… and I think that this is another thing that we will come on to with employers and employees… I think a lot of employers, who perhaps had the Alan Sugar attitude that when people aren’t in the office they’re not working, have actually seen how effectively people have worked in the pandemic.

And, actually, have had to deal with some quite serious issues. You know, a lot of people have lost family members and friends in the pandemic. You’ve got a workforce that’s under a huge amount of stress. And, actually, it’s been easier to deal with that stress in some cases where people are working from home.

And of course, you’ve got to allow for people who aren’t set up to work from home. The people listening to this podcast and the HomeWorkingClub readership are going to be more bent towards that kind of idea of working from home, but not everybody does want that.

But offering that blend… even some of these very, very old-fashioned type of places have understood… it’s a significant benefit.

You can reduce the amount of office space, reduce your overhead, and, you know, we’re talking about commutes and the effect on the environment as well. We’re cutting down car journeys, in a lot of cases, by offering this kind of thing.

As long as people are well looked after and… going back to that word enlightened… you offer people the choice, it seems very few companies are going to keep banging away on the old-fashioned way of doing things.

BEN: I hope that’s the case. I mean, the commuting thing is not a small thing!

I’ve commuted even just from outer-London to inner-London, for example, and yet you’re talking about an hour each way, if you’re lucky. It often ends up being an hour and a half each way… it often, often ends up being that long. That’s 15 hours a week!

You could a lot with 15 hours a week, either business or personal things in those 15 hours. And when you’re talking about a pandemic that is still rampant, in this country at least…

ALEX: Yeah.

BEN: So you’re also asking people to go into crowded indoor spaces where… at the moment we’re still arguing about whether people should be wearing masks in those spaces… I mean, it’s quite ludicrous.

As I’ve been thinking and getting increasingly incensed by Alan Sugar here… what bothers me about this is, what message is he sending to his staff? Is he saying they did a terrible job while they were working from home and that’s why he needs them back? Or is he saying that, as a company, they did a terrible job about providing the equipment, the infrastructure and the culture that they needed to do a good job from home?

Because plenty of companies have managed to thrive with home work.

ALEX: So what should an employer do to provide a… well, I suppose we’re talking about safety… a safe space, maybe a blended working environment. What are we looking at as good behaviour from an employer at the moment?

BEN: Well, I think the sad thing is that the employers who aren’t showing themselves to be enlightened are probably going to be very hard to turn into enlightened employers.

I mean, you could look to all the very, very good, progressive remote-first companies that were doing remote working and thriving doing remote working before anyone even heard of COVID.

I think they need to show a lot more empathy towards their employees and show a lot more trust in their employees as well. I think people inevitably do take pride in the work that they do.

I haven’t seen any data to show that productivity has dropped by having people working from home. And that’s despite an immense amount of stress. In a lot of cases, people having their children at home as well and getting their work done.

I mean, I know some of the bizarre hours that my wife and I have been working in order to fit it all around childcare as well. But it doesn’t mean that we’ve started missing deadlines and started being no good at what we’re doing.

I think trust is important because if you trust people, they tend to reward that trust.

ALEX: Yeah. I suppose the important thing is, talking about employers, how can they give that trust to their employees? What can they do to actually show that they trust their employees? And get their employees to trust them?

BEN: Yeah, well, I think one thing that is very important is to move away from this clocking in and clocking out thing.

The word that I always use is presenteeism, judging people on when they’re there. I think we’ve all seen this in office environments, that you get people who are almost held in high regard by certain managers because they’re always there early in the morning and they’re always there late at night. Whether they’re actually effective in that time isn’t always what people are being measured on.

And I think the way that asynchronous working / remote working works best is when people treat their work on a job and finished basis. The employer has clear expectations. The employee has clear targets. And the employee is judged on how well they’re meeting those targets and how well they’re doing their job. Rather than whether they’re just there.

It’s almost like saying, “Well, we work 9 to 5.”, “Why do you work 9 to 5?”, “Well, Because we always have.”. “Why do you work in an office?”, “Well, because we always have.” Well, that’s a pretty rubbish reason, isn’t it?

When you actually think of it from a blank sheet of paper perspective, that’s not a clever or intelligent reason at all.

ALEX: I think there’s an interesting point… and probably this shift with a lot of companies is… there are very few people in the world now that can’t do what we’re doing now, which is have a conversation over some kind of conferencing software, Zoom or Teams or whatever. You know, everybody’s grandparents are on that now.

I think that the barrier to those kinds of meetings… yes, it’s been really nice on a couple of occasions where I’ve had some in-person meetings, it’s been nice to actually be face to face with people… you get that kind of giddy thing of like I’m seeing real people in front of me… you know, you’ve got legs.

But the thing is that there are so many meetings now that absolutely don’t need to happen face-to-face, that did happen face-to-face.

I found that when I moved from a consultancy basis to a full-time employment basis. Suddenly, because my time is salaried, my diary fills up with meetings that people add me to. When they were paying me by the day that time was much more valuable and I was not attending all of these internal meetings.

The productivity of staff, I suspect, has gone through the roof because the tyranny of meetings isn’t there anymore. You know, that squeezing all your day’s work into an hour between meetings… which some days used to be like when I was office-based.

BEN: Yeah, and to be clear, I mean, even as the founder of a home working site, I’m not for a moment saying there shouldn’t be any more in-person meetings anymore.

I don’t not understand the value of them. And certainly for team building, for all of those purposes… I think maybe people will actually come to enjoy the office functions a bit now and look forward to the office functions a bit rather than dreading them, like so many people did before. Because when there’s a point to it, when there’s a need for it, then… yes.

These 43 out of 50 companies aren’t saying, “Right, people don’t ever have to leave their homes anymore.” They’re not advocating for that. They’re not suggesting that. But they’re talking a lot more about this hybrid working style, which is… if what you’re doing doesn’t really require you to leave your home office, why would you? Why would you spend the pollution of the commute, the cost of the commute, the time of the commute? It’s madness.

ALEX: So, looking at it from an employer’s point of view. Say you’re an employer. You have office space. You do want people to come in and have some of those face-to-face interactions. We talked about trusting your employees. What can you do to make your employees feel safe? To show that they can trust you?

BEN: Well, I think a lot of this is actually just about safety. Basic COVID safety.

I also, in this survey, asked this question to people in employed, traditional job positions: “Has your employer done anything during the pandemic that’s made you feel unsafe or unsupported?” So, we’re talking about things like enforcing social distancing, COVID testing, showing empathy around flexibility of hours if people are having child care issues, that kind of thing.

Depressingly, 53% of the people who replied responded to that question saying that yes, their employers had done some things that had made them feel unsafe or unsupported.

I think you see this more in the wider world as well. Certainly, as things have been changing with COVID, I’ve been out and about a lot more. I’ve been going shopping a lot more, supporting small businesses. And it’s so apparent when you go into certain shops… shops both large and small… where the management team are clearly taking COVID safety seriously, and others who are being a lot more flippant about the whole thing.

I don’t want to dwell on shops for too long because it’s not particularly relevant. But the reason it is relevant here is that, as a customer, I notice this. I might not be vocal about it but if I walk into a business and it’s clear that they’re not taking their customers’ or their staff’s safety seriously, I’m not going to make a scene in that shop but I’m not going to go back.

ALEX: No.

BEN: And I think the same applies when talking about trusting your employer as well. How are you going to be left feeling, as an employee, if you know that there are certain laws your boss isn’t following?

And it’s not like everyone experiences a pandemic in the same way.

Someone who is 25, with no pre-existing health conditions, can afford to be a little bit more flippant about these things. But someone who is immuno-compromised, someone who’s got an elderly relative at home, anything like that… they’re obviously going to be a lot more frightened, justifiably a lot more frightened about being put into a threatening environment.

And that threatening environment doesn’t just have to be the office or the shop. It could also mean the train that they’ve got to cram onto to get to work.

So, going back to your question of, what should employers do?

Certainly, make sure that their COVID safety is on point. And be doing as much as they can to understand, to put themselves… again it’s down to empathy… to put themselves in the shoes of their staff.

To be understanding if suddenly, as has happened to us in our local school, we’ve had four different school years who’ve been forced to isolate, resulting in the closure of the whole school year. And I can imagine some of those parents who’ve suddenly got their children at home will have had a very easy call to their boss and some of them will have had it very difficult… and perhaps even felt that their job is threatened by something that is down to no fault of their own.

The tragedy of this is, unfortunately, the employers who need to do this are probably not the employers who are going to do it because they’re going to be employers of that Alan Sugar ilk who are just like, “Well, I want everyone back to the office.”

ALEX: So, looking at it from an employee’s perspective.

I think the point that you picked up on there is that those 53% of people… what can those employees who find themselves with one of these employers who is making them feel unsafe… and perhaps this is a case of… even pre-pandemic… it’s likely that if they’re not behaving in a way that makes their employees feel safe now, they weren’t the best employers beforehand anyway.

What can we do, through the lens of returning back to the office, where perhaps you wanted to work from home more before you were forced to work from home and you kind of want to keep that working? What can you do as an employee that finds yourself in that kind of situation?

BEN: Well, putting it very simply, you only really have two options.

One is to vote with your feet and try and move yourself to an employer who is more understanding. And one thing I would say with that, because that sounds very drastic, and I can imagine people listening to that thinking, “Well, that’s all very well. If you’re in a job or in an area where that’s easy.” Yes, I do understand that but the statistic I would return to there is that 43 out of 50 of the biggest UK companies are being progressive about this.

ALEX: And that’s 86%, isn’t it?

BEN: It is indeed 86%, it is still 86%.

So, what I will call the dinosaur-style companies… they are in the minority now. Bear in mind also that if it does mean, “Do you know what, this employer is never going to understand, I want to walk”, you’ve got a bigger choice now of places to walk too.

Obviously we’re talking about kind of office-based jobs here. We’re not saying that if you have a career in stock control in a supermarket that you can decide you’re going to do that from home. That’s a whole separate debate, obviously.

We are talking from that position of, I guess, privilege, of those of us who have jobs that we can do from home.

I think that just emphasises the point. If you are lucky enough or fortunate enough to have a job that you could do from home and you’re with an employer who is saying, “Well, yeah it is a job you could do from home, but you can’t”, without a good reason for it… You do have the option of voting with your feet.

There are far more companies now who are open to hybrid working, remote working, or 100% home working.

ALEX: I think we looked at this, didn’t we, in previous podcasts.

I think the advice that we gave previously is, you know, you could potentially speak to your boss about blending your working style a bit more and try and get it written into a contract. There’s lots of stuff there.

But as you say, if you’re in one of those 14% of businesses that aren’t offering that kind of work environment… whereas previously it may well have been 14% of companies that offered some sort of hybrid working… one thing that the pandemic has done is flipped that figure right on its head now. So, the pressure for those companies to offer that kind of working environment, to be competitive in the labour market, is there. So I think the power has shifted to the employee in that sense a little.

BEN: It has.

I mean, we’ve long had an article on the site about how to ask to work from home, which was written pre-COVID. It is actually based quite a lot on how my wife went about this process when we wanted to move abroad but she wanted to hang on to her job and how she negotiated this. I will share that article in the show notes.

This is an idea that’s kind of crystallised as we’ve begun to speak but the issue we have with that… because obviously…

Option one: vote with your feet, go and try and work somewhere else.

Option two is, obviously, to try and negotiate with your employer about working from home. And there are ways and means to do that. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do that. And I would direct you to the article for advice on that.

But the issue you’ve got now is that a lot of companies have already… what’s the expression? Pinned their colours to the mast about this… and if you are working with a company where it’s clear that you already feel that you’re being pushed back to the office when there’s no good reason for it… you’ve just spent the last 18 months working really hard, meeting all your targets, performing very well at home, and you’re still feeling forced back to the office without justification.

I’m a little doubtful how well those strategies will work now if you’re with a company that’s already clearly stated, “No, we want everyone back.” Are they going to be that willing to negotiate? It is more almost like you’ve got to know your enemy a bit here now.

ALEX: Yeah.

So, going back to the point… unfortunately Lord Sugar, who has many fine qualities, has been used as shorthand for that type of employer and that’s what you get when you publicly state your position.

If you work for Lord Sugar at the moment, it’s very unlikely you’re going to be able to convince him to allow you to continue working from home, given that that’s his policy stance. So you probably are faced with the choice of working for him or moving to another company, and that’s unfortunately the way it’s likely to be.

The good news in that situation is that you don’t have to tolerate Alan Sugar because he’s now in the 14% of companies, roughly, that will have that position. And the other 86%… the maths are going brilliantly in this podcast, by the way… but the other 86% of companies are out there, so you may find yourself in that awkward situation but your choice of employer is much better than it was several months ago.

BEN: Yeah, it is.

I mean, that’s the thing. You’ve got a lot of companies… you’ve got some financial directors thinking, “Oh, well, we’re paying for this big, empty office.” You’ve got others thinking, “Well, you know what, we could maybe make do with a smaller office and we could use the money for this, that and the other.”

I mean, you could buy a lot of ergonomic chairs and big monitors for people with what it costs for city centre real estate.

ALEX: I’ve worked with a lot of finance directors in my time, and they all have roughly one thing in common, which is that when they become convinced of the financial sense of something they are absolutely ruthless in pursuing it. But it will take them, sometimes, a long time to come around to a point of view.

But, exactly as you say, when the maths is right, the finance director is usually the biggest hero for change in the company because they see the financial sense in it. So I think that you’re right. Once that’s filtered through to the money men then it’s… or money women, of course… then that change is rapid.

BEN: I think so. And I really do want to emphasise that I’m not coming from a very biased HomeWorkingClub perspective of, “Well, everyone should be able to work from home.” No!

First off, there are loads and loads of jobs that can’t be done from home. I don’t undervalue face-to-face meetings and things like that. I’m looking forward to face-to-face meetings, especially because it’s a really big change now. And I also kind of rather welcome the prospect of staying in hotels and apartments again, now and then, and just having a change of scenery.

But you can do a lot of your job from home. We’re recording podcasts over Zoom. I have had meetings over Zoom with people all over the world. It works!

I think it’s so short-sighted for companies who have made it work… it shows a huge lack of imagination to say, “Oh, well, it’s worked but we’re going to go back to the old way.” The onus is on employers now to justify that.

ALEX: Absolutely. I think you said the word, and I think that’s a good point on which to sum up: imagination.

I think, just to go back, we are seeing some trends, people have been talking about what is the world post-pandemic going to be like.

We aren’t post-pandemic yet. I think that point is clear. And that’s true from the survey, that people don’t think we are. But what we are seeing is some permanent changes in the way that people work.

There is a shift. Most companies are enlightened. Most companies are using their imagination as to how they can make the best of it. And there are a lot of positives that have come out of more people working from home, more people being comfortable with virtual meetings and probably valuing what they do with their office time more than they did before.

Will home working become the default and office become the sort of cherry on the top of the cake? Who knows? Maybe in some companies it will. Maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll get that blend. But interestingly, those employers that are now, as we’ve termed them, the dinosaurs are in the ever shrinking minority of employers.

So, the situation for people who are likely to be listening to this, who want to work more from home, or keep the home working they’ve been doing during the pandemic, or want to shift jobs so that they can have a more blended working style… the situation for them is perhaps not improved in the company they’re currently working for but the whole marketplace of work is actually much, much friendlier for home working.

BEN: Yeah.

I think that might be a pleasant surprise to quite a lot of people who have maybe stayed in the same job… the same office-based job, ended up working from home throughout the pandemic, now finding themselves in a position where they’re being asked to go back to the office… told to go back to the office, and they are struggling to see why that should be the case.

The good news for those people… if they have not checked the job boards and stuff recently… is that there are now a lot more remote jobs where remote is either the default or allowed. Potentially, that opens up companies in areas or even countries that you’ve not even considered.

ALEX: So, Ben, we’ve heard some fairly negative things from some, what we’ve termed, dinosaurs but also there are some real positives. How do you feel about the world of home working now and perhaps moving into the future?

BEN: I think it’s encouraging.

The way that some governments are treating this like it’s a binary choice, it’s either going to be home working, yes or no… I think they’re being outpaced by reality now. It is not a binary choice of whether we do home working or we don’t. There’s lots of grey in the middle.

That 43 out of 50 statistic suggests that companies realise that, even if Alan Sugar doesn’t and even if politicians don’t. It doesn’t have to be either yes or no to home working. And, if it does have to be, it’s nudging way closer to say yes than no.

So, no, I don’t think we’re past the age of the office but I do think companies are going to look particularly antiquated in the future if they don’t have a good justification for why people have to be in the office. It just doesn’t make sense anymore.

ALEX: Excellent. Thank you, Ben. What a note to leave it on.

Do please, if you’re listening to this, like, subscribe and share the podcast with other people, give us a review, leave us a rating and tell your friends because it really does help people to find the podcast.

And if there is somebody stuck in that situation where they’re working for an employer that’s not making them feel safe at work and they want to move, perhaps this will help give them the nudge in the direction of a happier, healthier life with more home working involved in it.

Thank you very much, Ben. It’s been lovely to chat to you again. And I can’t wait to do this in person in an office soon.

BEN: Yes. Thank you, Alex. And thank you everyone for listening.

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