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Companies must abandon return-to-office expectations or risk strike action

by LLB staff reporter
15th May 24 12:28 pm

To avoid widespread employee disputes and strike action, companies must ditch their outdated, pre-pandemic return-to-office expectations and improve the visibility of their leadership, says culture and leadership expert Dr. Nahla Khaddage Bou-Diab.

The intervention from the bank CEO follows reports of Office for National Statistics staff threatening strike action over an order to return to the office two days a week (Bloomberg): Public and Commercial Services Union members in the department have voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action (PCS).

Moreover, recent statistics highlight that companies are increasingly looking to follow the return-to-office trends set by notable giants like Boots, Dell, Deutsche Bank and more: according to Towergate Health & Protection, 98% of employers in their survey have encouraged staff back to the office (HR Magazine).

Nahla believes these mandates show companies are rushing to reinstate the outdated workplace cultures preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Nahla Khaddage Bou-Diab said: “Before the pandemic, the office was the centre of workplace culture: companies defined themselves by their in-office perks and benefits. However, now that employees have experienced a sharp shift in the working experience, namely with flexible ‘Work from Home’ schemes, ordering staff back to the office is downright lazy and offensive. Firms are failing to account for the needs of the modern workforce.”

In the UK alone, as of April 2024, 15% of working adults have only worked from home, 21% reported a hybrid working arrangement, and 40% have exclusively travelled to their workplace in the period of a week (Office for National Statistics). Hybrid working and ‘Work from Home’ policies have become a status quo for many employees – and as a result, their lifestyles have changed.

Nahla believes employers must now meet these new lifestyle norms. To do this, they must ignite cultural turnarounds.

Bou-Diab continued: “Ping pong tables, full office pantries and extravagant happy hours no longer appeal to the modern worker; staff are now looking for much more profound benefits, such as flexibility, equitable pay, and humanity. Under this shift, you can’t expect that return-to-office mandates will revitalise team cohesion and re-establish long-lost organisational cultures with the snap of a finger. They’ll have the opposite effect; they’ll turn off staff.

“Now that the working experience has flipped upside-down, companies must now pivot to meet the new needs of their workforce and shift their cultures accordingly. Corporations must now let the whole human into the organisation, not just the title or salary: they must ditch limiting hierarchies, quotas and other metrics that dehumanise people into meaningless KPIs and deliverables. The onus is on leadership teams to execute this move.”

According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, 81% of respondents believed CEOs should be personally visible to external stakeholders, and 60% of potential job applicants expect CEOs to speak out publicly about the social and political issues they care about. Today, visible leadership is of the utmost importance – Nahla believes the pressure is on them to spearhead these cultural shifts.

Bou-Diab concluded: “Leadership teams can no longer hide in their glass-walled offices and delegate cultural work to HR. Their absence could lead to disillusionment within the workforce, risking talent retention and perhaps even internal disputes. Whether through speaking engagements, company-wide AGMs or by addressing social and industry issues in the media, the C-suite must become visible to their staff, become the figureheads of the organisation, and drive this vital cultural shift.

“In the post-pandemic world, the office no longer holds the same cultural weight; however, if company leaders take the reins of their cultures and ditch their feckless return-to-office initiatives, there’s a chance employees will naturally gravitate back just by virtue of improved and more human organisational environments.

“Of course, it will be interesting to see where the return-to-office trend goes: I imagine companies will continue to make the same mistakes and will continue to forget that the COVID-19 pandemic even happened. Unfortunately, these mandates are only going to fracture the workforce – and could even spur strikes, as we might see in the ONS. So, here’s my message: don’t take the lazy route of ordering your staff back to the office. Prioritise the core of your organisation. Your culture.”

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