Return to the Office vs Working From Home

8th December 2023


A resultant feature of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the proliferation of employees working from home. Firstly, being forced to do so as a consequence of government guidance during the pandemic, and then, as form of convenience as people were able to enjoy the benefits of reduced monthly travel costs and attaining a better work/life balance. Now, almost three years on, a decent majority of employers, across the globe, have mandated a return to the office in some shape or form or are strongly recommending that their employees do so.

Unispace’s (a market insights platform) Returning for Good report identified, from its survey of 9,500 employees and 6,650 employers, from across 17 different countries worldwide, that:

  • 72% of employers have mandated office returns;
  • 42% of which reported a higher level of employee attrition than anticipated; while
  • 29% are struggling to recruit altogether.

Obviously, COVID-19 has significantly changed modern working habits as it proved that work could be done to the same standard or better whilst at home when compared to the office. However, there is a clear misalignment between the values held by employers and employees on this particular philosophy of working and it is important to understand why this is the case.

The Different Perspectives


The ‘Returning for Good’ report concluded that employers are failing to recognise the challenges that employees face and possess a lack of understanding as to why employees prefer to work from home. For example, the report highlighted that:

Employee’s concerns Employer’s perceptions
  • 53% of workers said they struggle to carry out their duties in the office due to distractions (e.g., loud work calls, conversations with colleagues, gossiping).
  • Around 83% of employers believe that their office set up allows employees to be productive and believe that career prospects would be limited to those working from home exclusively.
  • Employers underestimate key workplace dislikes that employees have such as missing the privacy they can access at home; being able to more productive in a quiet environment away from the office or, indeed, at home.
  • Employers believe that the biggest barrier for employees returning to the office is the costs of their commute.
  • 59% of workers state that they are facing burnout as a result of excessive workloads and a pressure to always be online.
  • 69% of employers believe that hybrid working has had a positive impact on the mental wellbeing of employees.

Unispace’s report did identify that, in 2023, 51% of employees are less reluctant to return to the office as compared to 2021 (indicating a decrease of 13% ).

Yet, in the UK specifically, data from the Employment Tribunal Service reported that there had been a 50% increase in employment disputes relating to remote working between 2021 (where 27 claims were heard) and 2022 (where 42 claims were heard). During the first half of 2023, the Tribunal service saw 25 remote-working claims. It stands to reason that these figures will increase. As the reported stated, there is “less reluctance” not “no reluctance” as regards returning to the office.

As employees did not report the costs of their commute as being a barrier in their return to the office, then why are they coming in? Despite opposing views, Unispace’s report identified that more employees acknowledged the benefits of working in the office including having strong internet access (45%), a good tech set up (39%) and access to natural light (33%). Yet, employees value their personal space with 83% of those who hot desk indicating that they would be more inclined to work in the office if they had an assigned desk.

Privacy is a significant concern for employees returning to the office, and an assigned desk may improve this. Moreover, it limits the potential for disruption, retains cohesion within with team, and can enforce a sense of belonging.


Of course, employers do have legitimate reasons as to why they want their employees to work from the office which includes monitoring their employees’ productivity, wanting to foster a positive and collaborative working environment, ensuring they can uphold their duty of care toward their employees, and, perhaps, more practically, as some may be contracted under lease agreements, they still have to pay their monthly rent but what’s the point of paying for an office if no one is there to use it? While there is a significant push for the return to the office, there are (at least from a UK employment law perspective) issues that employers need to consider carefully.

For example:

  • Once working from home was no longer governmentally mandated, it carried on at the employer’s discretion. Unless the terms and conditions within an employee’s contract expressly stated what their pattern of working is, had this home or hybrid working pattern become an implied term of their employment?
  • A big concern which SMB’s Joint Head of Employment Ewan Keen addressed on AWA’s “DNA of Work” podcast was how employers can formalise such hybrid working initiatives and if employment contracts and/or workplace policies need to be re-written. In effect, the core question is: how does an employer balance an individual’s needs and organisational efficiency? Click here to listen to the episode.
  • In June 2023, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 received Royal Assent and will come into effect in Spring 2024. This will enable employees to make two flexible working requests in any 12-month period (as compared to just one under current law) and employers must respond within two months as opposed to three. A request for flexible working is a statutory right and so employers need to be careful not to infringe on those rights when mandating a return to work.

The common trend employers have taken is to implement a hybrid working policy. Typically, employees will spend three days in the office and two days at home. However, consider the above table.  Despite hybrid working policies being put in place, 59% of workers claim they are burning out and feel exhausted from occupational anxiety related to hybrid working and, surprisingly, many employers are not aware of this.

Combatting the Great Exhaustion

According to McKinsey’s Quarterly insights on the Great Exhaustion, a root cause of this occupational anxiety is because employers have yet to get specific about the future of hybrid working.

From its survey, McKinsey identified that:

  • 49% of respondents stated they were at least feeling somewhat burnt-out if not feeling high or very high degrees of burnout;
  • Employees who feel anxious about hybrid working are often the ones who succumb to burnout and employers who do not have a clear and precise hybrid work plan are 2.9 times more likely to encounter employee burnout; and
  • 47% of respondents expressed concern that if the expectations of them in their role are not made clear in the post-pandemic world then this would contribute to feeling burnt out.

As an employer, your statutory duty of care toward your employees also includes safeguarding their mental health and wellbeing and failing in this duty can expose you to legal claims. It is therefore important to listen to what your employees are saying and try to find ways to accommodate their needs.

Of course, it must be done in a way that does not harm your company and its business, but this is why appropriate legal advice must be taken before implementing new policies and procedures.

In my view, simply implementing a hybrid working policy is akin to putting a plaster on a wound as it’s just one component in a highly complex incentivisation structure. Ideally, employees should be returning to the office because they want to; not because they have to.

SMB’s employment department is always at hand to advise you whether it relates to drafting new policies or general queries on employment law and/or best practices. Please do get in touch with our team should you require our services.