Working from home may be losing its shine for employers and even some employees, but we are still a long way from pre-pandemic days. Back then, the Australian Bureau of Statistics Impacts of COVID-19 Survey found just 13% of people aged 18 and over with a job were working from home all or most of week. Now, up to 40% of workers whose jobs can easily done outside an office or workplace are still operating in hybrid mode – many in the hope that it will continue.

But the problem according to strategists and CEO surveys, are that bosses are increasingly expecting to see a full time return to offices and workplaces by the end of this year at the very least.

Not so fast, warn workplace analysts.

Academics like Edith Cowan University Centre of Work and Wellbeing adjunct professor Ben Hamer believe mandating return-to-the-office policies is downright dangerous. 

Why? “Because you’re going to really erode trust and impact engagement, which will then have a flow-on effect to productivity and performance as well,” Dr Hamer says. He emphasises that hybrid working is ‘here to stay’.

Angela Ferguson, manager, creative director and co-owner of workplace strategy and designer firm Futurespace holds similar views. “The key to a successful culture/workspace environment lies in providing opportunities for people to connect while retaining some autonomy,” Ms Ferguson told NCA NewsWire.

Employees appear to be delivering this message in any case. Last December the Commonwealth Bank revealed it was battling to encourage even a few hundred of its workers to comply with a policy to be present in the office half of each working month. Other corporations such as Origin Energy and Suncorp Group are following a stricter path - making it clear employees will risk bonus cuts for non-compliance if they are present than less-than-desired hours in the office. On the other hand, tech giant Atlassian made headlines this week for stating that those companies that have already mandated even a partial return-to-office will regret the move because the policies trigger “a significant erosion of trust”.

New definitions

The issue is looming so large that one academic has even created a new word to define the consequences of cajoling staff back to their office desks: flexidus. A combination of ‘flexible work arrangements’ and ‘exodus’, flexidus was coined by Dr Melissa Wheeler, a senior business and law lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, who this week told Human Resources Director Australia her term meant “employees who aren’t receiving the kind of flexible work that they’ve become accustomed to or expect are going to be leaving in masses.”

Finding a solution for both sides was made somewhat easier last year thanks to the introduction of a federal bill around workers’ rights. This has made it acceptable for employees to request flexible working conditions, while employers are obligated to discuss options and formally negotiate with their staff. If discussions break down, a worker can approach the Fair Work Commission to seek the opinion of an independent mediator.

Encouraging signs

Motivation, not mandates, are the key to the issue, Ms Ferguson says, something that can be instilled in a workforce via incentives and making an effort to renovate premises.

“The key to getting this right for any organisation is to understand people’s needs from the experience of work,” Ms Ferguson explains. “Many leaders are asking staff to come in two or three days a week, which is not an unreasonable request – but there we often find in our engagement with organisations that there is a disconnect, or a gap, between what staff are seeking and what leadership are seeking in terms of days in the office. It’s not only about productivity, it’s also about mental and social wellbeing.”

Dr Hamer agrees. The question is how to make it work for everyone he says, especially as research continues to show that these days inflexibility on the part of an employer will almost always be viewed as a ‘deal breaker’.