Picture: 123RF/DMITRI SHRONOSOV
Picture: 123RF/DMITRI SHRONOSOV

Forget the recycling of the daily commute into more hours spent on the job at the kitchen table. White-collar workers appear to have failed to convince their bosses that they are at least as productive at home as they are in the office. In the minds of Europe’s bosses at least, work from home has peaked. Champions of workplace flexibility are going to have to deploy better arguments than A-B comparisons of output.

A May survey of 675 board-level executives at European firms released by analysts at UBS Group found that 40% expected staff to work their full week in the office in the next two to five years. While the figure was 52% before the pandemic, it’s up from 37% in December’s survey.

The weighted average number of days that respondents envisaged working from home (WFH) per week (including none) fell from 2.1 to 1.9 as support for three or more remote days slid. 

The pro-office arguments have been well aired: it’s where new recruits learn the ropes, it maintains the corporate culture, it facilitates collaboration. Badging in and out counters the “always on” mentality.

Whatever bosses think of these specific factors, the bottom line is that they just don’t think staff perform as well away from the office. An overwhelming 88% of the executives surveyed disagreed with the suggestion that remote working was as, or more, productive than being in the office. By contrast, only about 40% viewed their office as a significant driver of corporate culture.

These findings come more than a year into the pandemic as vaccines offer hope that Covid-19 will become manageable. Corporate leaders have had time to form a considered view on WFH. It’s unlikely their stance is going to change radically now. The variation in results between the countries surveyed — France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK — narrowed since UBS’s last poll, reinforcing the impression that opinions are settling.

The upshot is that employees will need a stronger argument for flexible arrangements than just saying they can do the job as well at home. This could now come down to negotiation and leverage: they may have to be willing to move to a firm that is more accommodating of WFH requests. 

For employers, an overly rigid line on office working risks undermining parallel efforts towards greater diversity and inclusion, especially in the senior ranks. They can insist on dawn-to-dusk face time in the office five days a week. But they’re not going to appeal to those with responsibilities caring for family young or old.

In the UK, the ruling Conservative party has a manifesto pledge to support flexible working. City of London employers should be looking to get ahead of future regulation. The central issue is as much about flexibility of hours as flexibility of location: some staff may be more productive if they are able to arrive at the office later some days, leave earlier on others, and make up the hours another time whether in the office, at home or anywhere else where they can concentrate for a period.

Finally, for investors in commercial real estate, the results offer some reassurance that companies are still going to want substantial floor space and city centres aren’t going to be hollowed out. The UBS analysts point out that Germany, Italy and Spain showed the most long-term structural support for office life in the survey, while French, German and Italian real estate was better positioned for near-term hiring trends.

But post-pandemic, the diverging views of employers and at least some employees on remote working present a conundrum. The stronger the economy, the more employers will be keen to add staff, traditionally pushing up demand for real estate. But the more buoyant the job market, the more bargaining power the employee has to demand the ability to work from home. How these cyclical and structural forces will play out remains to be seen.

Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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