Employers vs. employees: How to negotiate the ‘Great Office Return’

Almost four years after COVID tipped work-life on its head (I know, right?!), employers and employees are still locking horns about returning to the office. Both have their own, totally valid arguments – believe us, we hear it from both sides… constantly. So, what’s the answer?

Here at Lightning we benefit from a unique perspective, with first-hand insight from both candidates and companies. 

We’ve also worked our ars*s off to make our workplace one where people want to work and can thrive - being crowned the ‘best place to work in recruitment’ in the 2024 Recruiter awards so we know what we’re talking about when it comes to office + culture.

So, consider this our attempt to mediate the office vs remote vs hybrid debate impartially with a few options we hope just might work for everyone. (Full disclosure: being a referee in this match is no fun. Please make it stop.)

Employee ask: Better work-life balance

First, a quick history lesson: The 40-hour work week became standard in the early 20th century, when typically only one person per household stayed at home to manage the household and childcare. Now it’s more common for (let’s face it) women to work, many people find there just aren’t enough hours in the day for a full time job and all the other adulting shenanigans.

With more flexible working arrangements over lockdown, many found they had more flexibility and control over their time. Candidates have had a taste of a more manageable pace of life – plus all the mental and physical health-benefits this brings – and they’re not willing to give it up. 

The compromise: A 4-day week

Once upon a time, you might have laughed in our faces for this suggestion (sure, you might be scoffing right now). But results from a four-day work-week trial in the UK were promising: Worker stress decreased, and most employees found it easier to balance work and caregiving commitments. Not only that: there was a 57% reduction in attrition and revenue improved by 1.4% on average. Not so ridiculous now, is it?

With 63% of candidates rating a 4-day work week (with the same pay) as the top innovative benefit that would attract them to a job, this could be a gamechanger for attracting top talent. It’s also a viable alternative for sweetening the deal if you’re limited in terms of the salaries and pay rises you can offer. Plus, if having a remote or hybrid team really doesn’t work for your business, this is a different way to acknowledge your team’s human-ness, offer them more flexibility, and help prevent inevitable burnout.

Employer ask: Support for juniors and new-starters

No matter how many ‘Water Cooler’ Slack channels HR sets up, we all know there’s just not the same casual chit-chat and camaraderie when your whole team is working from home. With 87% of employees saying the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships (their top-rated needs for the office), it seems like a fully remote team is in no one’s best interests.

Plus, spare a thought for the newbies – how the flip are they supposed to settle in when they’re on their onesome at home, a mild sense of anxiety brewing as they try to figure out who’s who and what’s what, having never met a soul in person? With 80% of new hires who receive poor onboarding planning to quit (especially if they’re remote workers), this doesn’t bode well for your business.

The compromise: Organised hybrid work

According to PwC, less than one in five executives say they want to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic. But perhaps there’s a middle ground: what if we think of the new office as a meeting space for teams to connect and brainstorm, rather than somewhere you’re expected to work from every day?

That means embracing hybrid working, right? Except what, pray tell, is the point of coming into the office for your weekly fix of socialising/brainstorming/learning when the rest of your team is at home? Enter: organised hybrid work, where you designate specific days for employees – either across the business, or in teams – to work from the office, then arrange all meetings, training and socials for those days. The rest of the time, they’re free to stay at home and catch up with their laundry. Win-win!

Employee ask: Ditching the commute

Anyone who’s stood with their face squashed into the musty armpit of a stranger on the Victoria Line will attest that commuting causes unwanted stress. But research shows it’s also associated with health issues like spikes in blood pressure, higher blood sugar and cholesterol, increased anxiety and risk of depression, along with a general decline in happiness and life satisfaction.

Aside from that, there’s the time it takes – an average of 47 minutes each way in London – which could be used to support your mental and physical health by sleeping longer, spending more time with family, squeezing in a workout, or eating a healthy breakfast. Not to mention the rising cost at a time when everyone’s purses are feeling the pinch.

The compromise: Hub-and-spoke model

It makes sense that businesses forking out for spangly office spaces want them to be used. And, as we’ve established, having an IRL space to connect is crucial for lots of reasons. But does that need to be one big space? 

The hub-and-spoke model suggests businesses downsize to smaller digs in urban ‘hubs’ – as a central meeting place should they need it – and open suburban ‘spokes’ – which might be shared offices or even workspaces where teams are all members – that offer employees a space nearer their home where they can work IRL with local colleagues. This means they have a shorter commute and can even cycle or walk to work (pair this with the Bike to Work Scheme and your team will love you). Plus, you save on through-the roof city-centre rents. What’s not to like?


And for full transparency as to how we operate at Lightning, we currently work fully flexible hours, one Friday off a month for Mental Health, two team office days (we share the office space with another travel outfit to cut costs) and are finalising our ED&I plan to coincide with our plans to go fully remote (with optional accesible hybrid meetups!) by the end of 2025. 

You can find out how to make your business disability inclusive here.


If your company is refusing to move from full time office ‘because you’ve always done it that way’ and it works for you, then that’s fine. But you also need to accept that you run the risk of losing talent to competitors and to different industries because of this.

Unfortunately if you’re a candidate only looking for remote roles in travel, these are few and far between nowadays just to manage expectations. Although we are actively working with our clients to make positive changes with this (case studies incoming!).


Here at Lightning, we’re more than a recruiter – we consult with ideas and insights that can build your employer brand and push your business forwards. Want to pick our brains? Get in touch.

And as some bonus content, here's our Senior Talent Consultant, Jack Williams (he/him) talking about his favourite success story of the past year, working collaboratively with both the client and candidate:

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Thea Bardot

25th January

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