Should your workplace return to ‘office first’?

Merilyn Speiser , 5 October 2023

Hybrid work isn’t just a trend – it’s becoming the new norm. But offices still matter, especially when it comes to collaboration, writes HR specialist Merilyn Speiser.

One European study, the Okta Hybrid Work Report 2023, found that despite going hybrid, many companies aren’t cutting back on their office space. Instead, they’re redesigning the space to capitalise on the benefits that can come from being together.

In an age in which people expect productivity to matter more than presenteeism, employers are also adopting an ‘office first’ approach to hybrid working. This gives employees some degree of flexibility but also captures the many benefits that can come from working with colleagues face-to-face.

With that in mind, we look at whether ‘office first’ should become the new normal for Australia’s workplaces, including yours.


The Okra report found that hybrid working is now generally broken down into three models.

Fixed model

In this model, remote working follows predictable patterns. Employees have set days to work from the office as well as days to work from home. For instance, employees might work every Monday and Tuesday at the office desk and remotely for the rest of the week. This schedule doesn’t change; it’s fixed.

This model is great for planning but can be a bit restrictive for those employees who favour variety and flexibility. It’s a model that’s favoured by organisations with more traditional views on work-life balance, including many of Australia’s large corporates.

Flexible model

In this less prescriptive setup, employees get to pick where they work each day, depending on what they feel suits them best. Got a day of deep work? Stay home. Need to collaborate? Head to the office. This model suits people who like to control their own schedule, but demands a high level of self-management and requires very high levels of trust.

It’s often favoured in highly skilled professional settings, where productivity can be easily measured through methods such as billable hours.

Office-first model

Under this model, employees are expected to be in the office most of the time, but can still choose to work from home sometimes – maybe a day or two each week. It’s not as prescriptive as the fixed model, though. If an employee doesn’t have to be at the office on a set day to do collaborative work, they can choose to be at home.

The office first approach can help keep teams aligned and maintain company culture. If management says it’s a day for everyone to be in the office, employees need to be there.


The Okra report found that recently the office-first model was gaining the most traction among Europe’s employers. That’s because it tends to make collaboration easier and more spontaneous.

If an employee is stuck on a project, they don’t always have to schedule a video call or wait for an email reply. They can instead simply walk over to a colleague’s desk for quick assistance. This face-to-face interaction can not only solve problems faster but also foster a sense of community and team cohesion. Having everyone in the same space reinforces company culture, something that can get diluted when people are scattered remotely.

Another advantage the report found was that mentoring and career development often thrive in the office environment in a way that’s just not possible online. In-person interactions give employees a chance to observe how their leaders manage challenges or even just run a meeting. These subtle, everyday learnings can be hard to pick up in a remote setting.

For those new to a field or looking to climb the ladder, being physically present can offer invaluable lessons and networking opportunities.


The report noted that in European organisations, choosing the right work model is often a collective board-level decision involving multiple stakeholders, not just a matter for HR. This C-suite collaboration makes it essential for various departments to align their objectives and challenges, and reach some agreement on what will work best in the interests of the whole organisation.

Many take the view that employee wellbeing comes first, but this doesn’t necessarily mean allowing employees to work remotely whenever they feel like it. After all, an office-first approach can significantly enhance team dynamics and overall productivity. This, in turn, offers a well-rounded employee experience that prioritises both wellbeing and work outcomes.


Every workplace has to choose the best model for them. For some fields, the nature of the work makes face-to-face necessary. For others it’s more subtle.

Before jumping on the office-first bandwagon, we recommend considering several factors and how they impact your business.

  • Team dynamics: Does your team really need frequent face-to-face meetings to collaborate effectively? Or can they do it just as well remotely?
  • Productivity metrics: Do you have any performance data that can compare productivity when employees are at home vs. in the office? If so, does it show an uptick when the team is in the office? Or are they just as effective from home?
  • Employee feedback: Conduct some internal surveys or focus groups. What does your workforce prefer? One way or the other, you might be surprised..
  • Business Objectives: Align your decision with long-term company goals. Will an office-first approach help you achieve them?
  • Wellbeing: Does the office setup offer resources that support employee wellbeing better than they can get remotely?

By weighing these factors, you’ll get a clearer picture of whether an office-first model benefits you.


If people are used to having the freedom to choose, employers might face some initial resistance to moving to office first. If that’s the case, here are our tips for transitioning effectively.

  • Announcement: Clearly communicate the shift to an office-first model and the rationale behind it.
  • Transition Period: Offer a grace period for the team to adjust to the new setup.
  • Office Layout: Redesign the office space to maximise the benefits of in-person collaboration. Show everyone why being in the office matters so much.
  • Flexibility Clauses: Despite being office first, consider built-in flexibility for special circumstances.
  • Review: Periodically assess the effectiveness of the new model. Make tweaks as needed.

Implementing office first isn’t just a policy change. It’s a cultural shift that demands clear communication and a thoughtful approach. By considering the nuances and involving your team in the decision-making process, you can make the shift as seamless as possible.

Merilyn Speiser is Principal Consultant at Catalina Consultants, the ACA’s Human Resources advisor. This article was originally published on the Catalina Consultants website and has been republished with permission.