UK companies ordering staff back to the office this year

JD Sports and Boots are just some of the big-name employers that have backtracked on remote work this year.

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Helena Young

All good things must come to an end. For some UK workers, that includes remote working, thanks to the number of large employers that are rolling out return to office (RTO) policies.

While small businesses lean into flexible working, large employers are putting their foot down. Their bosses might have embraced hybrid or remote working post-COVID, but the message now is simple: “get back to work, or wave goodbye to a promotion.”

We’re keeping track of all the businesses that have U-turned on remote work below. We’ll also explore their motivation for doing so, and the potential impact on employees.


London- Boots, British high street pharmaceuticals & beauty retailer exterior logo / signage.

Back in March, beauty chain Boots announced it would ask 3,900 administrative staff to return to its shiny white walls for five days a week by this coming September (up from three). The firm said it gave remote work the boot because of its poor impact on company culture.

Perhaps expecting a backlash from employees, Boots immediately clarified that remote work wouldn’t be discarded just yet. “There will of course still be times when working from home is necessary for either personal or business reasons,” said a spokesperson.

Putting the onus on managers to oversee the return to the office might backfire, however. According to research by Owl Labs, 70% of UK managers have admitted to allowing staff to work remotely from home in defiance of company policy.

JD Sports

At the start of May, JD Sports told employees based in its head office in Bury that they must return to the office for at least four days a week. The new rules will be in place from July 1. Previously, staff at the sports retailer could work from home as often as they liked.

JD, which has a global workforce of 51,297 employees, claimed it had changed its policy to ensure a fair approach for all staff. However, like Boots, JD managers will be asked to appraise requests for flexible work, suggesting approvals will still be subject to personal bias.

Manchester United

Man United

There’ll be no home advantage for Manchester United staff this year. The club’s minority-owner, Jim Ratclife has announced that its 1,000 workers will no longer be given work-from-home privileges during an all-staff meeting held earlier this week.

So why has remote work been shown a red card? Ratcliffe thinks it impacts productivity. He revealed email traffic fell by 20% when teams worked from home one Friday.

Paranoia about remote workers slacking on the job has caused many companies to lean into employee monitoring software. Also known as ‘tattleware’, these methods can have the opposite effect, however, as knocking staff morale can lead to a decrease in output.

Laing O’Rourke

Laing O'Rourke (1)

As the construction firm behind the much-delayed HS2 project, Laing O’Rourke has faced plenty of challenges over the past few years. Still, the Dartford-based business appears to see remote work as its biggest threat.

The company told its 8,000-strong workforce to return to the office full-time in April 2024, and attributed the shift to a “challenging FY2023 financial performance”.

In an email, Group Chief Operating Officer Cathal O’Rourke, also blamed low employee engagement for the change. “Our offices are too often sparsely populated and our lack of face-to-face connectivity and collaboration has added to the challenges.”

Civil Service

Abstract anonymous blur of a suited office worker passing a street sign indicating prominent addresses of Parliament Street and Whitehall in the UK civil service district of Westminster.

More than half a million people are employed in Civil Service roles. On average, they work just 2.1 days at their workplaces. Efforts to improve attendance have so far had little impact.

The latest campaign began in January, when the Cabinet Office announced that Civil Service managers who failed to improve on office attendance would face disciplinary action. Staff had been previously instructed to work in-office at least three days per week.

Staff have reacted poorly to the mandate, arguing a return to work could make them less productive. Public sector union PCS is exploring if there is appetite for members to go on strike — a move that will certainly lower productivity.

Deutsche Bank

Deutsche Bank (1)

Deutsche Bank, which employs more than 7,000 people across Birmingham and London, instructed staff to return to work for at least three days a week, starting in June.

While not as strict as some other employers, the bank also stipulated that staff must work in-office on either Friday or Monday, putting an end to the prolonged work-from-home weekend that many had enjoyed. Senior managers must attend the office four times a week.

In a memo, CEO Christian Sewing and COO Rebecca Short wrote: “we realized that our decision would not be received positively by everyone and we appreciate your feedback and frank words.” These words did little to quell staff anger, however.

“This is an unnecessary battlefront for Deutsche Bank that destroys reputation and trust,” said Stephan Szukalski, head of labour union DBV, which represents Deutsche Bank staff.

Dell Technologies

The technology firm previously requested staff to return to the office full-time amid concerns it would have an impact on productivity. In January, it amped up efforts, telling employees they would miss out on promotions and pay rises if they continued to work from home.

Commenting on its new policy, Dell explained: “We believe in-person connections paired with a flexible approach are critical to drive innovation and value differentiation.”

Dell is not alone in linking remote work with performance reviews. Google has begun to use in-person attendance as part of employee feedback meetings. Still, this strategy risks sending the wrong message to staff that being present is more important than performance.

IBM Consulting

Dusseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany - September 9, 2021: IBM logo in Dusseldorf, Germany - IBM is an American multinational technology corporation headquartered in Armonk, New York

IBM first ordered staff to return to the workplace in September 2023. Reaction was lukewarm at the time. Employer-employee relationships at the firm had already soured after CEO Arvind Krishna publicly declared that 30% of his workers could be replaced by AI.

In January, the company doubled down on its RTO policy. Managers were told that they must be at the office, or meeting a client, for a minimum of three days a week. If not, they could leave the company.

Threatening staff with redundancy unless they come back into the office is certainly a bold move. It’s one of the most extreme messages we’ve seen so far in the return-to-office debate. But likely it won’t be the last.

Planning to implement a return to office policy at your business? Don’t be like these guys. Read about the Flexible Working Bill and your legal obligations as an employer.

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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