RTO mandates cause “rebelliousness” among staff, says bank boss

As employers clash with workers on a return to the office, Atom Bank CEO Mark Mullen says his company has the answer.

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Companies ordering staff to return to the office are creating a workplace culture of “rebelliousness”, according to one large UK employer, who thinks return to office (RTO) mandates are making managers “afraid to ask their employees to come back to the office”.

Mark Mullen, CEO of Atom Bank, a digital-only challenger bank, made the comments in an interview with the Financial Times this week. In 2021, Atom became the largest UK company to adopt a four-day week, a move Mullen says has helped it to steer clear of staff rebellion.

He added that the success of the rollout at Atom has “proved that working practices that may have seemed years away can be introduced rapidly.”

RTO mandates scaring managers

Since remote work became standardised across many UK offices, when – and how often – employees should work from home has become a topic of discussion at every water cooler.

Some employers are going down the tough love route. Manchester United banned home working outright, encouraging staff to visit the office full-time by offering redundancy pay to those who didn’t.

Others have caused scorn among employees for punishing employees, as in the case of Dell and JD Sports. Even brands asking staff to work just one day in the office, such as Lloyds Bank, have seen a fall in employee engagement as a result.

As Mullen argued, there is evidence that managers are struggling to keep the rise in workplace conflict in check. Data shows many are backing out of the argument all together.

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 RTO.

Four-day week “less challenging” than RTO

With even large companies unsure of how to proceed with an RTO, few employers have claimed to know how to handle the HR conundrum. Mullen, however, believes he has the solution. Into the hybrid versus remote debate, he has introduced another work concept: the four-day week.

For three years, Atom’s now 547-strong remote workforce has worked 34 hours across four days. Their wages, crucially, remain unchanged from when the policy was introduced.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Mullen reported that implementing a four-day working week had been “considerably less challenging” for Atom than introducing a hybrid work policy.

He said planning a four-day week has given the company more control over its workforce’s working style, compared to the loose definition of flexible working.

As a result, managers are more certain over how to implement the policy, and employees are clearer on what their options are.

“We planned the shift patterns, we planned the changes, we consulted on the changes of employee contracts.. [That is] not what happened with flexible working,” Mullen told the FT.

Four-day week set to Atom boom

Last year, a business survey by Startups found that 12% of UK businesses planned to adopt a four-day working week in 2024, marking a seismic shift in attitudes to the employee perk.

The move could be a positive one for businesses. In 2022, 61 UK companies took part in a landmark four-day week trial. 18 months later, 54 reported they had maintained the four-day week policy for teams, according to a report by think tank Autonomy.

In Atom’s case, Mullen reports that the number of staff on sickness leave, as well the rate of staff turnover, both dropped following the pivot to a four-day week.

It is impossible to compare how a hybrid or RTO policy might impact the same workforce. But findings from our four-day week survey suggest the policy could reduce attrition.

52% of UK employees told us they would actively seek future employment from a business offering a four-day workweek. Appetite for the benefit was similar across every age group.

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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