Businesses don’t want their people working from home anymore. WFH might have been a ‘thing’ for a while, but the big genie needs to go back in the bottle whether it likes it much or not.

High-profile leaders like Lord Alan Sugar and Elon Musk have talked publicly about their lack of trust in home workers — they’re just lazy and lacking commitment. The Goldman Sachs CEO has called WFH an “aberration”. Other employers have taken action: Disney has told its hybrid workers they have to be in the office Monday to Thursday; JP Morgan Chase’s staff have been reminded that WFH does not come as a standard choice; while TikTok in the US has warned employees they needed to live within the local area of their office or risk being sacked.

Meanwhile, offices across the UK are still emptying out. Research has shown that 102 million square feet of office space is now vacant across the UK, with expectations of further rises. There are more vacant offices than there were following the global financial crisis of 2008.

The problem is that organisations tend to think only in terms of the basic efficiencies involved: we’re losing money if the office isn’t being occupied fully; we need to be closing down space or thinking about sub-letting; or we at least need to make sure the productivity value of both office and people is maximised.

What’s interesting is that the emptying of offices isn’t happening everywhere consistently. One example of where demand is holding up is in London’s West End. Because staff want to be among the whirl of cafes and shops, where there are lots of places to meet at lunchtimes or after work. Going to work comes with a lifestyle angle.

Offices and workplaces shouldn’t just be seen as functional hives. They should be the place people want to be, where they want to do much of their work because of the community involved. Forcing employees back into the HQ doesn’t do anything for people’s feelings of trust, or of being trusted, or the overall feelings around relationships and culture.

That also doesn’t mean resorting to gimmicks. Sushi Tuesday. Massage Friday. The kinds of offering that have short-lived appeal and do nothing to improve the everyday mood. Instead HR and management can best help get people back into offices by making them places filled with a sense of belonging and trust, where there’s a sense of purpose and confidence in each other. In other words, a grown-up kind of place where people can be themselves.

The foundation is a Clear Air Culture: rooted in psychological safety and good, open conversations, the kind of open conversations that lead to innovation, better relationships, defused tensions, more rewarding times.

The genie of WFH is not going away and can’t be forced to disappear. So rather than getting involved in a battle of wills with staff, strangling the options of flexibility, HR need to pay more attention to their office culture and what it offers — how does it make people feel? Is it somewhere people want to be, and if not, why not?

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