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British businesses must work harder to entice employees back to office

In a recent interview with the Daily Mirror, Boris Johnson reiterated his call for British workers to return to the office, claiming they are “more productive, more energetic, more full of ideas” when surrounded by their colleagues.

But much to the Prime Minister’s dismay, it appears that a significant proportion of Britons simply do not want to go back to the workplace after two years away – even as their European counterparts are returning in greater numbers.

Given that working from home (WFH) allows for greater flexibility, affordability and a more fruitful work-life balance, it’s not difficult to understand the UK’s widespread reluctance to re-enter the office. As such, it must fall to companies to provide the incentives to lure their staff back, even if some of the more high-profile initiatives being trialled thus far appear to go over the top. Nonetheless, there are others such as smart building design, subsidised meals, pet-friendly environments and reliable childcare which could hold the key to kickstarting a “new normal” among corporate culture in the office.

Britons eschewing the office

Several recent polls suggest that Britons are demonstrating a greater reluctance to return to the workplace than those on the continent. Commuter journeys in the UK are down 23% (and 30% in London) from pre-pandemic levels, compared to an 8% and 11% decrease in Germany and France, respectively. That has prompted some train companies to offer commuters free breakfast foods, takeaway coffees and audiobook subscriptions to try and lure them back.

Of course, it’s not just transportation firms who are keen to bring the British workforce back into the office fold. Some corporations, such as investment bank JP Morgan, initially took a hard line on the subject, only to be forced into an embarrassing U-turn in the face of employee backlash. Others have implemented a variety of schemes and initiatives to incentivise their wantaway workforce. Some of the more outlandish incentives include a treehouse-style office space at Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco and a state-of-the-art virtual golf course at one New York-based real estate business.

Miroslav Vyboh’s Middlecap leading trend towards smarter workspaces

But while those kinds of zany ideas might seem overkill, other elements hold greater potential. In the London borough of Southwark, for example, investment firm Middlecap, helmed by Slovakian entrepreneur Miroslav Vyboh, has developed the “world’s smartest building” and is leasing it to companies keen to retain their workforce inhouse for much of the week. Vyboh’s firm and architecture studio SPPARC specifically designed the building, cleverly named Southworks, to create the optimum working environment, where temperature, humidity and electricity consumption levels can be adjusted to suit its users’ habits, leveraging machine learning to become more attentive and effective over time. Little wonder that it’s the first UK building to receive Platinum Smart Building Certification, then.

Other innovative workspaces include a Bankside edifice that’s set to become the UK’s first all-electric, net-zero office in the near future, using 30% less energy than a standard setup, as well as the Roots in the Sky rooftop forest project which will cover 1.4 hectares with over 100 trees and more than 10,000 plants, giving employees a green space in which to unwind and recharge during their working day.

Goldman Sachs and Amazon bet on meal plans; pet perks on the rise

Elsewhere, financial services tycoon Goldman Sachs is also opening up its exclusive rooftop to employees in a bid to keep them onside; formerly the area was reserved for the sole use of clients and visiting royalty. Goldman Sachs is also offering free breakfasts, lunches and ice cream to staff onsite, while Amazon has funded more than 100,000 cups of coffee and other outfits are feeding employees without charge on Mondays and Fridays in a bid to incentivise them to come in on days they might normally skip. Given that some individuals have reported spending over a quarter of their daily income on food and commuting to the office, those kinds of initiatives are surely welcome.

Meanwhile, other responsibilities taken on during the pandemic must be accounted for. Pet ownership in the UK has shot upfrom 45% in 2019 to 58% in 2021, with more than 3.2 million dogs, cats and other furry friends finding homes in that time. Unsurprisingly, people are concerned about the welfare of animals who have grown accustomed to their near-constant presence, with two-thirds admitting they’d be more inclined to visit the office if their dogs could come too. On the flipside, 82% of organisations who have implemented dog-friendly policies say it has helped with recruitment.

A better work-life balance is best for all

With a single day of commuting worth a whopping £82 million to UK businesses, it’s no surprise that Boris Johnson and C-suite executives want their employees to get out of the house and back into the office. Smarter buildings, free food and canine companionship may all do their part in convincing workers to give up WFH, but wider-ranging benefits focused on the things that matter most to the general public – such as family, free time and flexibility – could also provide an optimal route to greater workplace attendance.

For example, in one poll 95% of workers polled said that they would appreciate the flexibility to organise their schedule as they saw fit, which is a greater percentage than those who saw WFH as a main priority. Meanwhile, young parents could also be won over if provisions for quality, affordable and reliable childcare were made for them. By having such facilities onsite, employees would more gladly take to their office chair and enjoy greater productivity, free from the burden of worrying about their offspring. For their part, companies could experience greater employee retention and dip into a wider talent pool to fill new roles. As such, forgoing the condescending comments from policymakers and devoting attention to initiatives that foster a better work-life balance for their staff may be the true ticket to tempting employees back into the office.




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