Boots’ return to office policy is pointless – here’s why

Boots has told admin staff they must work in the office five days a week. Here’s why the latest return to office is doomed to fail.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Pull your socks up and get into work. That’s what Boots has told its administrative staff, as it becomes the latest brand to attempt a mandated return to the office.

From September, around 3,900 workers based in the pharmacy chain’s Nottingham, Weybridge, and London offices will be asked to travel into work five days a week. The new policy represents a significant uplift from a previous hybrid model of three days per week.

The move is out of step with rising employee demand for flexible working. In fact, Startups recently reported that 66% of UK firms will embrace a flexible model in 2024. So why are Boots and so many companies flogging an anti-flexible working dead horse?

Why is Boots mandating a return to the office?

Boots CEO, Seb James, said the employees had been asked to come back into the office in order to make it a “much more fun and inspiring place” with everyone in attendance.

Companies have struggled to maintain positive organisational culture without in-person working, with many taking a few months to adapt to working and socialising online.

That said, Boots’ changes in working also come as the retail chain’s US owners prepare for a sale or possible flotation of its UK outlets. Boots recently announced that it would close 300 stores across the UK to “consolidate” the business.

In this context, the new policy is more likely an attempt to increase visibility of the Boots team in order to further add to the business’ valuation (currently estimated at £7bn).

The return to office debate drama

The return to work backtrack is now becoming a time-honoured tradition amongst employers who refuse to let go of older workplace habits such as the 9-5.

Starbucks and Disney have generated major employee pushback by trying to force teams back to their desks for this reason. Both have since had to water down their policies following protests from workers.

Clumsy and bizarre messaging has even led some brands to be ridiculed for telling staff to give up remote working using methods that range from coercion to blackmail.

Their main motivator is money. Many see remote working as a waste of spending. Office spaces are emptying across the globe, causing senior leaders to push return to office (RTO) policies as a way to ensure workplaces are being utilised.

However, if they want to save money, managers should think again. Data from Startups has shown that companies based fully in-office were twice as likely to have laid off staff in 2023, compared to remote and hybrid-friendly counterparts.

The research suggests that embracing remote work, rather than curtailing it, is the more cost-effective solution for brands like Boots to limit overheads and maintain a healthy workforce size.

You can’t fight the flexible working revolution

Big-name employer scandals might have claimed the headlines on office returns. But the general trend amongst smaller and more progressive companies over the past two years has been towards more generous flexible work policies.

Asda recently made headlines by announcing it would trial a four day week, while Vivienne Westwood told staff in January to work from home.

One factor is a shift in employee attitudes to home working. Many UK workers have thrown their support behind the trend, and a recent survey found that 94% of UK staff agree it leads to improved morale and better work-life balance.

It can also save staff money – a crucial perk during the cost of living crisis. That could be why employees are prioritising home working over pay when it comes to employee benefits.

Even the government has got on board. In April, the new Flexible Working bill will become law; empowering workers to more easily submit requests for flexible working to employers.

With flexible working likely to become easier, not harder, for employees to access this year, Boots’s fight for a RTO looks to be a losing battle.

Even Boots knows its policy is pointless

In an effort to see off potential pushback from employees (and legal consequences) Boots is attempting to strike a balance between forceful return and worker empowerment through its messaging. Come September, it says there will be some wiggle room on flexible work.

“There will of course still be times when working from home is necessary for either personal or business reasons,” said a Boots spokesperson.

In truth, a company either offers flexible working or it doesn’t. Boots’ softer language suggests even its managers know that mandating full-time office attendance is pointless.

Staff used to a hybrid work pattern that lets them carry out errands or attend appointments will likely see the new policy as a guide to follow rather than official requirements.

Those who are concerned will simply jump ship. In a recent Startups survey, 52% of UK workers told us they’d change jobs to access flexible working arrangements like the four day week. They’ll not be short on options, with 12% of firms planning to adopt the policy in 2024.

We’ve seen it time and time again: strict RTO policies do not work. As Boots’ half-hearted office desk drive demonstrates, this is the year that flexible work options win.

Now, it’s time for business leaders to stop fighting the tide, admit defeat, and embrace the opportunities that remote and hybrid working affords.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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