Boots on the ground as head office staff told to return five days a week

The mandate by British retailer Boots for its head office staff to return to the workplace full-time marks a general shift by large organisations away from the middle-ground of hybrid working

What are we to make of the news that Boots, the British health and beauty retailer and pharmacy chain, has ordered its 3,900 head office employees to return to the workplace full-time, five days a week, from 1 September 2024?

The announcement has been greeted with incredulity in some quarters – it certainly swims against the rising tide of remote and hybrid working. But the uncompromising mandate by Boots CEO Seb James, which is accompanied by a promise to make the office ‘a much more fun and inspiring place’, also signals that the momentum towards hybrid is not irreversible.

Boots, which is owned by Walgreen Boots Alliance, has a total UK workforce of 52,000, the vast majority of whom are physically located in stores, warehouses and distribution centres. Its edict to head office staff simply brings them into line with all other Boots employees, who have no choice but to turn up at a physical workplace every day.

Policy of equality

In one sense, one could argue that Boots is implementing a commendable policy of equality in the workplace rather than pandering to the professional, laptop-toting classes. But in a sign of the sensitivities involved, the company has also been at pains to justify its actions.

CEO Seb James told staff in a leaked memo: ‘There is no doubt in my mind that the informal conversations, brief catchups and ability to meet in groups in person has been far more effective – and better for our unique Boots culture – than the enforced formality of remote meetings.’

As for those promised improvements to the Boots head office environment, they amount to enhanced wi-fi, better food, more quiet spaces and improved car parking. As a reflection of wider employee concerns about workplace, that’s not a bad list. But the jury’s out on whether such basics will convince head office staff that five commutes a week will be worth it.

Avoiding middle ground

Boots’ workplace strategy matters on account of its rich history as an innovator in office design. Its steel-framed Nottingham HQ building, which was originally designed in 1966 by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and extensively remodelled around 2000, is an outstanding, listed Modern Movement building.

What’s interesting right now is that many organisations are finding the middle ground of hybrid working a tricky territory to navigate. Some are heading towards fully remote, with software firms leading the charge; others are convinced that a full-time return to the office is the way forward, with big banks (and Boots) at the head of the pack. Both camps are keen to avoid the halfway house quagmire of hybrid.

Psychological safety

There is some scientific evidence to support going to one end of the spectrum or the other. In a 2023 paper for the British Psychological Society, researchers Amanda Potter and Jessica Ross found that people who work in the office full time report higher degrees of psychological safety, followed by those who work exclusively remotely. Full-time office workers and remote workers were more able to own up to mistakes and learn from them than their hybrid colleagues.

Could it be that Boots is onto something with its five days a week in the office? If so, they are not alone. According to the latest data from the Movers Index compiled by Virgin Media 02, 40 per cent of companies now require five days a week of office work from their employees and 92 per cent have some type of mandatory policy for in-office working.

To learn about new workplace strategies adopted by large organisations around the world, visit WORKTECH Academy’s Hybrid Working Radar in our Innovation Zone, an exclusive resource for members and partners.

Join WORKTECH Academy as a member here.

Jeremy Myerson is director of WORKTECH Academy, emeritus professor of design at the Royal College of Art  and co-author of Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office.
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