Return to Office—the UK Version

Office occupancy has picked up but is still half of pre-pandemic levels. Should firm leaders turn to more creative ways to lure people back?

It’s called a “five days a week” policy—as in the firm asking employees to come in all week long. But stubbornly, it’s become a policy that’s far from universal.

Despite a recent uptick in people coming into the office—with more firms requiring it—many British companies are still struggling with return-to-office plans. According to the most recent data from Remit Consulting, office occupancy hit its highest level in two years, but still remains at only about 35%, meaning that about half of employees are coming into offices. (UK offices were at an estimated 80%-occupancy level prior to the pandemic.)

“If a company has a ‘five days a week’ policy, it doesn’t necessarily resonate with people,” says Rory Singleton, senior client partner for Korn Ferry’s Global Industrial Market practice. “It’s a red flag for many candidates.” Indeed, at least one in three British workers say they’d quit rather than come into the office every day, according to data from social-media website LinkedIn. Other statistics, just for London, show that three in four workers based in the capital would consider leaving their employer rather than have to be in the office all week.

With the labor market tightening, a growing number of UK firms are requiring employees to come back to the office either full-time or at least several times a week. But a few particularly British dynamics are stalling many of the efforts. Before the pandemic, 931,000 people were spending over two hours commuting to London jobs, more than double the national average daily commute time, according to a Trades Union Congress study. A series of transportation strikes have heightened commute stress and pricing. And while workers globally face rising costs of living, London’s was recently ranked the fourth highest in the world by an ECA International 2023 report. The result: middle-class employees consistently say they cannot afford to live near their offices. “It really hits their pockets to go back to the office,” says Richard Widdowson, who leads the EVP and Employee Experience Consulting practice at Korn Ferry in London.

In response, some firms are ditching past efforts to try to coax people into corporate workspaces, says Matthew Atkinson, a Korn Ferry associate client partner. “From what I hear, there aren’t as many free lunches for staff going on as there were,” he says. Instead, some executives are becoming role models in terms of keeping up their own in-office attendance. It’s a form of leading from the front, and experts say it can be effective. “Simply by role modeling, people are coming on board,” he says. 

Peer pressure can affect workers too. Atkinson has seen meetings set up where employees have the option to attend via Zoom, but there’s still an incentive for them to be present physically. “It’s a reduced experience if you are on Zoom,” Atkinson says. “The conversation is different to deal with if you aren’t in the room.” In other words, participation via a screen can only go so far, and employees know it’s in their best interest to show up.

Physical presence also helps foster creativity and collaboration, whereas remote working stymies the process, according to research published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour in 2022. That creativity is vital in a world where every company is urgently in pursuit of innovation, says Jonathan Magee, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Leadership and Professional Development practice. 

To encourage this kind of innovation, experts say leaders should explain the benefits of being present to workers, Magee says. It’s about conveying purpose at every level: the purpose of the company, the employee's role, and the necessary collaboration involved. “Good leaders are connecting the purpose and the requirement to come into the office,” Magee says.


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Workforce Transformation capabilities.