Is three the magic number for in-office working?

Evidence that three days in the office is better than two or four is lacking

Google, Meta, HSBC and Amazon have all made headlines over the summer for mandating workers return to the office for at least three days a week, but what evidence is there to support three days as the optimum amount of time in the office for most people's productivity? Cath Everett reports

For many employers these days, the hybrid working model of choice has become three days in the office and two days out.

Views on why that is remain mixed.

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Gemma Dale is a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University and co-founder of the Work Consultancy. She says: “The three/two split was a popular option after the pandemic but is rapidly becoming a new default, replacing the pre-pandemic five days default.

“This is partly because some large and influential organisations, such as Amazon and Meta, are adopting this approach.”

But there are other drivers too, believes Chris Goulding, managing director at specialist HR recruitment company, Wade Macdonald.

He agrees that a minimum three days in the office is currently the most common working pattern and is, in fact, one that his own firm has adopted. One reason for this, he says, is management expectations and preferences.

“About 47% of leaders surveyed in one of our previous reports felt they’ve had to change their management style since the pandemic, primarily due to the shift towards remote working and the increasing need for flexibility,” he says.

“But by ensuring staff are in the office even for a few days, the difficulties they face in identifying and investigating problems are somewhat mitigated.”


Getting the right balance

Other concerns centre on fears over a negative impact to company culture, teamwork, creativity, and learning and development if staff are not together on site enough.

Cheryl Bosi is head of HR at HSBC UK, which has also gone down the three days in the office route in the interest of maintaining customer service levels.

“To do that, we know that learning, collaborating and spending time together in our offices, or face-to-face with clients, to spark new ideas, learn from one another and solve problems faster makes a difference,” she says.

“And that does require an element of structure. It is also key to creating a great workplace experience for colleagues.”

Lauren Greenway, client services director and HR lead at creative marketing firm Ilk Agency, takes a similar stance.

“We find people are more productive this way as they appreciate us enabling them to manage their work/life balance more effectively,” she says. “I don’t think anyone would want to work full-time in the office or at home anymore, and three days seems about right – it’s a nice balance.”

Two days on site fails to provide enough time for people to mix, collaborate and socialise, all of which helps to maintain a positive, cohesive company culture, Greenway believes. Four days, on the other hand, does not offer employees enough flexibility.

This point is reflected in Goulding’s own experience. “The hardest jobs to recruit for now require people to be in the office five days a week, but they don’t want to do it anymore,” she says.

“They also feel that organisations asking for it have cultural problems and don’t trust their staff.”


Looking for the evidence

But is there any hard evidence to prove that three days in the office is the optimum number? Dale believes not.

“I think the three-day thing is really a finger in the air – usually supported by vague statements about how important it is to come together in-person – but lacking a robust evidence base,” she explains.

“There’s no clear evidence that three days is better than two or four.”

Dale cites one study from Ju Won Park, Seejeen Park and Yoon Jik Cho (2023) which indicated there were some positive outcomes if employees spent between 23% and 40% of their time in the office and the rest working remotely. But this, like other research into the area, is highly context-specific, making it difficult to translate findings broadly into other situations and organisations.

Dale believes such lack of clarity is inevitable though.

“There can’t be a number of days that works for everyone in every situation and for all desired outcomes, only what works best for the specific context,” she says.

“It might even be impossible at an organisational level, meaning a true optimum can only be found at a departmental or individual role level.”

"Three days is often the compromise that sits somewhere in the middle of different wants and needs"


Nonetheless, Dale points out: “Few organisations would be prepared to go for ‘maximum autonomy' and allow that level of freedom. If they did, chaos might well result.”

The minimum three-day scenario also has the potential to generate unforeseen consequences of its own.

“It might be highly possible that some employee and organisation outcomes would show benefits from three days, for example, in terms of relationships, but other important measures, such as productivity or wellbeing, would decline,” Dale says. “We don’t know this if we don’t measure it – and many organisations don’t.”

Another consideration is that if a three-day policy is implemented poorly, it could end up doing more harm than good.

For example, Dale explains: “It’s pointless if the three days someone comes in are a different three days to the people they need to work with, or if they spend the entire time on Teams or Zoom with everyone else working remotely.

Ultimately though, she believes: “Going into the office is not an individual choice, and should not be, because it’s also about the team and the wider organisation’s needs.”


Providing clear guidance

It is incumbent on HR to ensure the guidance given to workers is crystal clear and that communications to ensure each employee’s hybrid presence is aligned with the needs of the business, customers, stakeholders, and colleagues.

How Ilk Agency has dealt with this situation is by mandating that Friday is a work-from-home day. This means that each of its 30 employees spends at least two days in the office together.

“If people don’t think it works, we’ll review it as we want to ensure the business is happy as a whole, but it’s the management team that makes the final decision,” Greenway says.

The company also stipulates that everyone must come into the office on the second Monday of the month for a company-wide meeting. The same applies on ‘payday Friday’ to participate in an agency update and social events.

But, as Dale points out, there is not, nor can there ever be, a one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid working, no matter which model is chosen.

“Every organisation needs to operate hybrid on a spectrum that works for them in terms of the level of autonomy they provide. It’s just that three days is often the compromise that sits somewhere in the middle of different wants and needs,” she concludes.


This article first appeared in the September/October 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.