Seventy-five per cent of office workers in a European survey agreed it should be illegal for bosses to force staff to work from an office, which represents a big change from attitudes in earlier decades
Seventy-five per cent of office workers in a European survey agreed it should be illegal for bosses to force staff to work from an office, which represents a big change from attitudes in earlier decades © Central Press/Getty

A lockdown low point came last week when I stepped out of my apartment for the first time all day and discovered I was wearing a trainer on one foot and an Ugg boot on the other.

As far as I can tell, this happened because I had been wearing the Uggs at my desk all day and, halfway through taking them off to put on the trainers to go outside, I was distracted by a work call. The trainers were so remarkably Ugg-like in terms of comfort that I failed to notice that I had only put one of them on before sailing out into the street. 

In the annals of workplace clothing failures, this was clearly not good. Yet I still prefer it to what I fear lurks ahead.

As vaccine rollouts prod public life back to some semblance of normality in more places, there is a growing risk that people like me will soon be told to ditch the slippers and other work-from-home comforts, and get back to the office five days a week.

Americans have come up with a two-word phrase that perfectly captures the dread this inspires: “hard pants”.

Technically, the term just means trousers with zips, buttons or non-elasticated waistbands — the opposite of the stretchy soft pants remote workers have lived in for the past year or so.

But when people say they’ve had to “squeeze back into hard pants” to go into the office, I suspect they are talking about all the other reasons why pollsters consistently find that only a minority of employees who can work remotely want to return to HQ full-time. 

I speak here of the skipped breakfasts and frantic searches for presentable but too-tight clothes needed for the rush for an overpriced seat on a jampacked train. Not to mention the arrival at a desk too noisy to work at, where the only place to make a private phone call is the bathroom.

No wonder 75 per cent of office workers in one large European survey published last week agreed it should be illegal for bosses to force staff to work from an office.

Of course some people, especially new recruits and younger workers, are itching to get into the same room as colleagues they barely know or need to learn from. 

I too am keen to see colleagues in the flesh again and I miss what Apple’s boss, Tim Cook, called the “hum of activity” in an email he sent last week telling staff they had to be back at their company desks at least three days a week by September.

But I do not know anyone who wants to return to the five-day working week as it was. That means an almighty showdown is looming between workers who want to be able to work at home at least one or two days a week, and employers who want all to be just as it was before 2020.

A huge, sought-after company such as Apple, which is inundated with job applicants, may be able to easily dictate terms. So too a Wall Street bank such as JPMorgan Chase, whose chief executive, Jamie Dimon, last month said remote working was no good for young people, corporate culture, ideas generation or “those who want to hustle”.

Yet the pandemic has unleashed a revolution in thinking about remote working that is likely to make it harder for many employers to demand a full-time office presence. “My sense is that that’s not going to fly,” says Nicole Sahin, chief executive of Globalisation Partners, a US-headquartered firm that helps companies navigate the process of hiring staff abroad. “They’re going to have a hard time recruiting people if they require everybody to be in the office.”

For the organisations in this category, there may be little choice but to plunge into the largely uncharted waters of hybrid working, where staff switch from home to office through the week.

Exactly how this should be done is one of the biggest workplace questions today. How affordable is it? What does it mean for office layouts? Can people still keep their old desks or does hot-desking have to become the norm? Should staff all come in on the same days or not? And that is just the start of it. Few companies know all the answers yet but like it or not, a lot will need to find out very soon.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark





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