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MARKET PULSE: From big corporations splashing out the cash on private pop concerts to companies rolling out the fun wagon with free food and fitness classes, it seems that businesses are increasingly desperate to entice staff out from their comfortable lives as home-office hermits to return to their cubicles in the big smoke.

According to CBRE’s latest Office Occupier survey of brick-and-mortar businesses, more than one-third of Australian and New Zealand respondents are actively trying to encourage staff back to the office, with a further 35 per cent expect to encourage staff to return more regularly by the end of 2022.

While most companies now permit “flexible” working arrangements – such as working from home some of the time – the average number of days are dropping. 

While one must take with a grain of salt such a survey coming from a real estate company, it must be said that a rising number of companies are employing innovative, impressive – and sometimes silly – tactics to draw talent back into the office and keep them happy – or at the very least, less annoyed.

Why are executives so eager to get staff back, while staff are reluctant?

Executives are concerned about the low rate of return, with ANZ chief executive Shayne Elliott flagging concern that just one in five of his 28,000 staff have come back since March, a recent AFR article reported.

“Less than 10 per cent of Australian and New Zealand respondents expect employees to never – or entirely – work from home, which is a clear shift since early in the pandemic when there was a lack of consensus on hybrid working,” Tom Broderick, CBRE’s head of office and capital market research in Australia said in a statement. 

Executives are keen to draw workers back to the office – but many workers are not on the same page.

This comes as Australia has claimed its place as the country with the highest recorded Covid infections in the world, amid warnings of a “horror” flu season and outbreaks of Monkeypox and Legionnaires disease. 

While companies are keen to get employees back to the office, it seems that there’s an “executive-employee disconnect” when it comes to the topic of working from home. 

While companies are keen to get employees back to the office, it seems that there’s an “executive-employee disconnect” when it comes to the topic of working from home. 

A survey of 10,000 global workers from workplace-messaging platform Slack last year found that while almost half (44 per cent) of executives want to return to the office full time, just one-sixth (17 per cent) of employees feel the same. 

In fact, a recent study from Hub Australia and WORKTECH Academy found that 56 per cent of workers saying they would consider switching employers if increased flexibility isn’t an option.

The push to return to the office may suggest old-school thinking about employment, coupled with a lack of understanding about technology, staff childcare issues and the distractions of not having an office with a door, said Brian Elliott, the Future Forum’s executive leader and Slack’s senior vice president.

Hybrid work is the sweet spot 

Numerous studies found that the shift to working from home lifts productivity, so the push to return has nothing to do with that. It hinges on a need for a sense of social belonging and control over employees. 

The sweet spot, therefore, is a zone of flexibility somewhere between two and three days a week. 

“There’s a danger in being too hardline,” Luis von Ahn, co-founder and chief executive of language-learning platform Duolingo, told NPR. “Top talent wants some amount of flexibility.”

Women workers may be hit the hardest by unconscious bias from executives against those working from home – and miss out on opportunities as a result.

However, many executives may exhibit unconscious bias against those working from home, as experts are saying that those in the office are usually the ones considered for promotions – and those workers are usually men. 

“If women end up being the ones who disproportionately opt to work from home or adopt a hybrid arrangement, compared to men who are more likely to opt to return to the office full-time – then women will inadvertently suffer from a lack of visibility, recognition and opportunity,” Dr Leonora Risse, senior lecturer in economics at RMIT University and national chair of the Women in Economics Network, said.

It all starts with company culture

When companies start talking about bringing people back to the office, it’s natural for many employees to resist. That’s because there are many benefits of working from home. 

The question is, is going back to the office right for your company and staff? And if the answer is yes, how can companies encourage employees back? 

It all starts with the company culture. Workers don’t see the benefit of commuting to the office every day just to sit in a chair and hop on Zoom calls all day. 

It all starts with the company culture. Workers don’t see the benefit of commuting to the office every day just to sit in a chair and hop on Zoom calls all day. 

The workplace culture can be enhanced from mindful attention to things like office layout, which can support or change the corporate culture of an organisation.

Workspaces that actively work to enhance collaboration and support networking and connection between colleagues are ones that succeed in bringing staff back. So, while it might seem silly that some companies are allowing dogs in the office and offering free yoga and Taco Tuesdays, offering these incentives may mean staff are more than happy to hop on board for the average one hour plus commute each morning.

The trend towards ESG

Organisations that are clear about having a positive environmental and social purpose tend to attract and retain engaged employees who align with company values.

The CBRE survey also highlights the growing trend around companies building ESG considerations into their decision-making processes. 

The fight to attract quality talent means that companies are now turning to real estate to help boost green credentials. 

“Around 80 per cent are looking to move into ESG-credentialed buildings in the future, which is a significant market shift,” explained Darren Nugent, CBRE’s regional director for advisory and transaction services of office occupiers in the Pacific.

Rolling out the fun wagon

When Microsoft reopened its offices in February, employees were offered live shows with local bands, beer and wine tasting, and classes for making terrariums. When Google employees returned to their mostly empty offices in April, they were treated to a private show by pop star Lizzo, life-sized chess boards and basket-weaving classes

Before Covid, many companies wanted the best of the best in glass skyscrapers that exhibited their success in a stunning marvel of architectural prowess filled to the brim with amenities. 

But for many employees, returning to the office has somewhat of a back-to-school dread. 

But for many employees, returning to the office has somewhat of a back-to-school dread. 

To sweeten the deal, Medibank held a festival to entice workers back, featuring Cathy Freeman and drag queen bingo.

Some companies are luring workers back to the office with the promise of free food prepared by in-office chefs.

Happy hour and a movie night were some of the many extra perks Duolingo offered employees, where around 80 per cent of staff resumed working at least part time from the office in March. 

They offered ice-cream socials and happy hour, as well as fully funded employee clubs ranging from skiing to wine-tasting. An in-house chef now prepares hot breakfasts and lunches all free of charge. 

Another improvement companies can make is in safety and wellness. 

Janet Martin, CBRE’s regional director of workplace strategy, told The Fifth Estate that companies are looking to increase the safety of their end of trip facilities so that staff don’t have to walk “down dank unlit corridors in the basement”.

“A sense of control is key: post lockdowns people want to feel at work the same sense of control they may at home – how they choose, configure, alter or moderate [their working environment].”

She calls the new trends “curated” and “user-led” as companies are looking to create more of a mixed-use office vibe with informal breakout spaces, retailers, cafes, and gym/yoga/pilates spaces. 

“With respect to wellness the feel of the building is critical… air circulation, greenery, access to natural light through the design of fit outs or a sense of openness and lightness where natural light is trickier to harvest.  

“A sense of control is key: post lockdowns people want to feel at work the same sense of control they may at home – how they choose, configure, alter or moderate [their working environment].”

Employers ease cost of living pain

In particular, rising inflation means that money is tight for many employees who found working from home eliminated the price of working in an office (petrol, lunches, and takeaway coffees). 

A report from the Universities of Sydney, South Australia, and Western Australia has revealed that skipping the commute amounts to $5.6 billion in savings in Sydney alone.

To ease the pain Google for example is offering reimbursements for staff to rent electric scooters. Microsoft offers free food with such tasty delicacies as pizzas, sandwiches, fried chicken, tacos, gyros, Korean food, barbecue and specialty coffees. 

Global commercial real estate services firm Cushman and Wakefield have also rolled out social events across its Australian offices. The events feature sandwiches, pizza and drinks to attract staff to networking events, and LGBTQIA+ and diversity awareness days. 

In the war to attract talent, a good company culture and strong values is arguably more important than perks like free food and laundry.

At the end of the day however, staff are not just going to be lured back to the office with a promise of free food. After all, these kinds of perks probably won’t be offered forever. 

Meta (formerly known as Facebook) for example told employees recently that it would eliminate the laundry and dry cleaning services that were recently offered for free. 

Google has announced that it will cut pay for staff who elect to work remotely and move to a less expensive location. And London-based global law firm Stephenson Harwood said they will cut their lawyers’ pay by 20 per cent if they elect to work remotely. 

These kinds of cuts may make or break an employee’s willingness to continue working if they are required to work in-office. 

That’s why the war to attract talent means that a good company culture and strong values is arguably more important than perks like free food and laundry. 

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