Work from home but don’t tell anyone, say managers

Research finds that UK managers are secretly allowing team members to WFH, in spite of an official return to office request.

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Helena Young

Employers like Boots have caused upset amongst employees by demanding a return to full-time office work this month. Now it seems even managers are ignoring the request.

According to research by Owl Labs, 70% of UK managers have admitted to allowing staff to work remotely from home despite their company demanding an official return to office (RTO).

While large employers talk the big talk about a forced return to the desk, the data calls into question whether businesses can enforce an RTO policy that isn’t backed by management.

RTO mandates foster rise in stealth management

Efforts by organisations to get employees back into the office have ranged from polite requests, to blackmail, to bizarre (as in the case of WebMD’s much ridiculed ‘back to the office’ music video).

The results have been negative. Brands like Dell and Amazon have caused uproar by introducing coercive initiatives that effectively punish remote workers, such as refusing to consider those who work from home for a promotion or pay rise.

Some firms, including Boots, have spotted the backlash caused by a heavy hand and taken a more delicate approach to the issue.

“There will of course still be times when working from home is necessary for either personal or business reasons,” said the retailer, when it asked staff to work from the office full-time.

Despite various PR crises, organisations continue to fall into the RTO trap. Their efforts are almost certainly doing more harm than good, as Owl Lab analysis suggests that more stringent mandates are giving rise to “stealth management”.

The practice occurs when managers feel emboldened to introduce their own rules on business practices such as remote work, to fight against what they view as unfair ruling.

As Owl Labs finds that 7 in 10 line managers are defying RTO orders, it’s likely those who work from home will simply fly under the radar during performance reviews – undermining employer authority and creating a divide between leadership and management.

‘Be reasonable about RTO,’ say workers

Headlines are warning UK workers of stringent action being taken by big-name employers against WFH. But the Owl Labs data shows that the power is actually in employee hands – and they don’t want to relinquish the benefits of flexible working.

The perks are, by now, well-advertised. Most members of staff agree that it brings them better work-life balance and would choose remote working over a pay rise.

This consensus could be the reason why 35% of survey respondents report their company has backtracked on a RTO mandate. Accordingly, 15% say this was due to staff demands, indicating that employee preferences are still driving company policies.

Not everyone is entirely against a return to the office, however. 87% of employees that Owl Labs surveyed agreed that RTO strategies can be beneficial for boosting team morale.

However, the same percentage favoured an ‘unofficial’ and more flexible strategy that allows for hybrid working, where working from home is permissible at managers’ discretion.

Respondents were also more cynical about office working as a way to improve productivity. Just 44% of hybrid workers said that working from home made them less productive.

Flexibility remains key

In just over two weeks the government’s flexible working bill, which empowers individuals to request flexible working options from day one of employment, will become law.

With even Westminster backing more flexibility over when and where staff work, the decision by many organisations to impose a strict and punishing RTO policy looks increasingly like fighting against the wind: pointless.

Taking a carrot approach to a return to office that acknowledges the advantages it offers staff is more likely to win manager support and improve relations within the company hierarchy; two vital ingredients for any HR change.

Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs comments: “It may seem contradictory for managers to push for RTO mandates while also allowing employees to work remotely when it suits them.

“However, it shows that despite managers valuing face-to-face interactions with their employees, they don’t want to dictate their work schedule. Managers need to trust their team so that employees can work where they do best.”

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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