Striding back to work: challenging HR’s remote working orthodoxy

Reports of a future of heavy-hybrid working may have been greatly exaggerated.
3 mins read

Recruiters say the most important thing for candidates looking for a new job is flexibility in terms of working location. The HR orthodoxy suggests remote work — or heavy-hybrid — is the future. 

I’d suggest HR professionals think twice before nailing their colours to that mast because the UK’s workers are returning to the office.  

The most recent evidence comes in the form of… trousers. 

Recent figures released by menswear brand Spoke show less than a fifth (18 per cent) of the trousers they sell are now in one of their more casual cuts, unsuitable for the office.  That compares to a quarter (25 per cent) in 2023.  And even that was a huge change from 2021, after Boris Johnson ordered the country back into lockdown and the UK switched to remote working. By that third lockdown, everyone who could was working remotely — at that stage, almost a third (32 per cent) of the trousers they sold were in casual cuts.  

I spoke to the founder of SPOKE, Ben Farren about this. “People started making jokes, back in the summer of 2020, about how they were taking Zoom calls in their pants. As a custom-fit menswear retailer, I can tell you for a fact that they were,” he said.  “It got so bad that we had to introduce a new range of elasticated sweatpants just to survive.”

Now, it’s all changed.  Their smartest trousers — those in their more formal cuts and in their most formal colours — represented only 27 per cent of sales at this time in 2021.  This rose to 36 per cent in 2022. Now, they represent 43 per cent of sales.

I am convinced that sort of change in demand is driven by the UK’s return to the workplace. After all, we’ve all read about organisations missing the collaboration, innovation, and sense of community that shared workplaces can provide.

Just in case this is a bit of a stretch for the HRDs out there, I should mention SPOKE’s data chimes with research from Randstad UK which found employers are toughening up remote working rules. Three in every five workers in the UK told the HR giant that, in the past few months of the year, their employer had become less flexible when it came to remote working.  In a survey of 2,000 workers across the UK, 60 per cent said “In the past few months, my employer has become stricter about making sure staff come into the office.”

There are also high-profile examples.  In Q1, financial services companies started having battles with staff over remote working.  Several banks upset employees by demanding they return to the office more days a week, with workers complaining of draconian measures, such as monitoring their attendance and threats of disciplinary action for non-compliance.  By way of illustration, Goldman Sachs requires bankers to be in the office five days a week.

Obviously, as a menswear brand, SPOKE doesn’t sell clothes to half the workforce.  The Economist shone a light on the gender disparity in the availability of remote working options recently, highlighting that men and women still specialise in different kinds of work — and that different occupations take different approaches to remote working.

Jobs in industries such as computer science are disproportionately performed by men and professions like law still employ more men than women. Meanwhile, teaching and nursing jobs are dominated by women; a minority of nurses and teachers can work remotely but the vast majority have to treat their patients and teach in person. 

Industries which report the highest level of remote-work flexibility are coding and technology, architecture, engineering and business jobs. About half of people working in computer or mathematical jobs work remotely full-time.

The upshot is that it is easier for men to work from home. A survey carried out by McKinsey (in the US, I think) found 38 per cent of working men had the option to work remotely, compared with 30 per cent of women.  And roughly half of women report being unable to work remotely at all, compared to 39 per cent of men.

So, given what we know about the gender disparity involved with access to remote work, I think SPOKE’s figures can tell us something about work location trends.  

Either way, if SPOKE are seeing orders for casual trousers drying up as people buy smarter clothes for the office, then workers are going back to the office whether candidates like it or not.  Working from home is not the future — and the prevailing HR orthodoxy is wrong.

James Staunton is a director of Air Cover PR

James Staunton

James Staunton is a director of Air Cover PR

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