Who is really going back to the office?

Workplace preferences vary across age groups, creating challenges for companies

October 10, 2022

In recent weeks, bosses from all sectors have once more issued the clarion call, asking staff to return to the office. However, we’ve been here before with varying degrees of success.

Yet despite recent data from Kastle Systems Workforce Barometer suggesting that as we head into autumn, levels of building occupancy have risen sharply, many frustrated managers will testify that it’s not necessarily the case across the board. So just who is going back to the office?

Opinions over the future of remote work are clearly divided between senior cohorts and their colleagues, a sign of how the complexities of the hybrid conversation continue to cause issues for those managing workforces and real estate. 

Working somewhere other than the office has become the norm for over half of corporate employees, but JLL’s Workforce Preferences Barometer found that Non-Managers and Baby Boomers have a weaker appetite than Gen Y and Z for hybrid work.

In fact, 37% of people over 50 years old are likely to be found in the office five days a week, as opposed to just 20% of under 35s.

“We are seeing a major generational clash, creating friction between those who desire choice and flexibility and those who are detractors of hybrid work,” says Flore Pradere, Research Director in JLL’s Global Work Dynamics team. “It’s interesting to note that the most senior age groups are split between advocates and detractors of remote work, making it a challenge for the latter to support teams in a work routine they’ve not embraced themselves.”

It has certainly caused debate among high profile critics, with some vocal CEOs demanding the majority of their staff return to offices full time, and suggestions from the UK’s The Apprentice boss that those working from home should "be paid less". 

Old habits die hard

If seeing is believing when it comes to keeping tabs on large numbers of people, then face-to-face interaction offers reassuring visibility and feelings of control.

“It’s not surprising that some executives who have spent almost an entire career in the office, are struggling to adapt their management techniques, reverting to what they know,” comments Sue Asprey Price, CEO EMEA Work Dynamics.

“But developing a culture of trust and achieving a healthy balance will be vital as it looks like hybrid is here to stay.”

Cultural differences are also emerging.

“In countries with hierarchical management approaches like Japan and France there has been less flexibility, with employees expected in the office more often,” Pradere says, “but in the UK, U.S. and Canada, the model of empowerment and managing by objectives lends itself more readily to flexible work.”

She goes on, “Firms need to identify those who are finding it challenging, explain what’s in it for them and provide training that develops new skills to help them get the best out of dispersed teams.”

Mind the gap

It’s not just the age of those frequenting the office that is giving cause for concern.

Data shows that women, parents and people of color are keener to embrace hybrid work, which Pradere says creates opportunities to expand the traditional talent pool, while at the same time threatening diversity in the physical workplace.

With 53% of organizations in JLL’s Future of Work survey reporting they are planning to make remote working permanently available to all employees by 2025, workplace strategies need to tackle the issue to avoid the emergence of a two-tier workforce.

“Equipping staff with the right technology and tools to support flexible work is critical - but so is spending regular time together in the physical workplace,” says Asprey Price.

“Creating deeper connections, fostering inclusion and diversity of thought, passing on knowledge to the leaders of tomorrow, all this is vital for individual career development and thriving businesses, but harder to do remotely.”

It’s a sentiment confirmed by 41% of surveyed decision makers, who told JLL that by 2025 they see the primary purpose of the office being to provide opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and mentorship.

Research also shows that younger employees and new hires prefer to immerse themselves in a firm, learning ‘by osmosis’ – difficult to do if their middle management colleagues are working from home.

“Employers must be transparent in their expectations of staff at all levels, setting clear goals and KPIs that link individual performance and contribution, to the overall productivity of both teams and the wider organization,” suggests Asprey Price.

Building bridges

As well as providing high quality workplaces and amenities, companies are now looking at ways to bring staff together to form meaningful connections and build a sense of belonging, from all-hands meetings to social activities. 

In Singapore for example, law firm Dentons Rodyk has provided a "monthly team bonding fund" to encourage employees to participate in group activities such as going for meals, games or movies, while Spotify now have a dedicated ‘Community Experience’ team (who work closely with Diversity & Inclusion) to find fun ways to connect a dispersed workforce.

However, with rising inflation causing those with less disposable income to weigh up the cost of commuting, work clothes, lunches and childcare, challenges around future office dynamics look set to continue for some time to come.

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