JD Sports v Manchester United: which “return to office” policy is an own goal?

Some companies are being stricter than others about a return to the office. Which approach will win?

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Helena Young
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Remote work has gone from the “new normal”, to the new nuisance for employers. Many high-profile companies are now rejecting home working. But without recorded case studies to rely on, their game plans are differing wildly.

Last weekend, JD Sports boss, Regis Schultz defended the brand’s decision to ask staff to come back into work four days a week. Manchester United, meanwhile, has gone on the attack; offering workers who refuse to return to the office a cash bonus if they resign.

Together, both strategies represent a carrot-and-stick approach to return to office (RTO) policies. But as demand for flexible working explodes in the UK, which – if either – will prove most effective at boosting office attendance?

JD Sports’ ‘soft approach’ to office work

JD Sports made headlines in early May when it issued a two-month warning that staff would be expected back in the workplace from July. Previously, employees at the firm’s head office were able to work from home as often as they liked.

Schultz seems confident that embracing office work will positively impact performance. Commenting on the decision, he told Retail Times: “I think that we feel that [a return to the office] is the right way to work”.

Crucially, JD Sports has given staff plenty of leeway to adjust to the change. Managers have been told to continue appraising requests for flexible work, suggesting workers who need to work remotely will still be able to do so (also the case with another large retailer, Boots).

The company has also confirmed that staff members who do not comply with the rules will not be let go as a result. Which brings us to…

Manchester United subs off remote workers

Compared to JD Sports, Manchester United has taken a stricter approach to its RTO. Boss, Sir Jim Ratcliffe told over 1,000 workplace team members last month to return to full-time office work on 1 June, giving them roughly three weeks to prepare.

After a poor response from its employee base, the club emailed staff to confirm that anyone who does not comply with the new rules can quit within the next week and receive a four-figure payout. No ifs, buts, or maybes.

Fellow brands which haven’t bothered with niceties include Dell Technologies and WebMD. The former implicitly told staff that home working will leave employees less eligible for promotion, while the latter told workers in an internal video, “we aren’t asking or negotiating”.

Manchester United versus JD Sports

It is not surprising that firms are struggling to strike the right balance when it comes to an RTO. After all, this is uncharted territory for most businesses. However, the pros and cons of each strategy are already becoming apparent.

JD Sports’ decision to make remote work available at managers’ discretion might go down better with employees. Still, it is unlikely to improve office attendance. 70% of UK managers have allowed staff to work from home, despite their company’s official RTO policy.

Manchester United’s hard-line RTO policy could also backfire – even if the effects are not felt immediately. One survey of workers who were told to come back into the office found 64% were job hunting, suggesting the club could begin leaking talent (and not just Erik ten Hag).

Plus, while Ratcliffe has said the RTO will boost productivity, the evidence says otherwise.  Data from software company Protime UK shows that 33% of hybrid workers report working longer hours at home, suggesting an RTO could instead produce a drop in output.

Are RTO mandates worth it?

It is too early to say if either Manchester United’s or JD Sports’ RTO policies will lead to an employee exodus. However, the consequences of a poorly-managed RTO policy go beyond just heightened staff turnover.

Flexible work is now perhaps the most in-demand employee benefit for job seekers. UK workers have clearly been won over by the work-life balance and cost savings it guarantees.

That’s why losing this privilege can drastically lower staff morale, as Lloyds Banking Group discovered when it reported a fall in employee engagement as a result of its RTO mandate.

Naturally, RTO mandates also put companies at a significant disadvantage when it comes to the talent wars. In desperation, some office-only workplaces have even raised pay for new hires. Yet research shows employees would accept a pay cut to work from home.

Whether they play good cop or bad cop, companies with the wrong RTO policies risk jeopardising their relationship with their staff. Neither Manchester United nor JD Sports has received positive feedback from the workforce, and Schultz admits he expected pushback.

With this in mind, it is crucial that companies consider whether prioritising ‘meat in the room’ is more important than having a satisfied, motivated workforce.

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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