A clear return to work policy can boost morale, productivity and performance

With UK companies preparing for a phased return to work and trying to establish a feasible and fair return to work policy, the words of Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon make it clear that not everyone has the same idea of just what that might look like.

The exact nature of how businesses choose to operate in the future is likely to be very diverse. Tech giants Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter have all said that they will not compel staff to work in their offices and will give them the option to work from home permanently. Many others – probably most – are likely to switch to a more flexible, hybrid work model, according to global property consultancy JLL, enabling staff to mix and match remote and in-office working.

Last time around, the return to work transition was much more about practical COVID-compliant considerations, as set out in our back to work guidance. This time, it’s likely to be about something that could probably be best described as “cautious and irreversible”.

Goldman Sachs return to work policy

But that does not, it would seem, extend to Solomon, who at a recent conference said that while the investment bank had operated throughout 2020 with “less than 10% of our people” in the office, also suggested that it did not suit the work culture at Goldman Sachs as he roundly rejected remote working as the “new normal” and instead labelled it as an “aberration”.

Of course, it is an issue which will challenge all organisations. The transition from predominantly home working to a longer term model is unprecedented. Never before have so many companies simultaneously had to decide what their structure will look like and what their relationship with their staff will look like going forwards. As a result, businesses need to plan the return to work carefully, considerately and with what is best for both their staff and their business in mind.

Strong governance and work, life balance

Solomon’s altruistic argument might hold more water had a group of first-year analysts not warned senior management in February that they were being overworked and would quit within six months unless conditions improved, according to an internal survey that emerged on social media which revealed that they worked an average of 95 hours a week.

The bank has since taken steps to address employee burnout, the bank said. However, the corporate reputational damage had been done.

Goldman Sachs is far from alone, in April Jonny Frostick, a contractor for HSBC Holdings, attributed his near fatal heart attack to self-perpetuated overwork and chronicled his travails in a hugely followed LinkedIn thread.

Stories such as this underline why, with working from home becoming the norm, it is important that work, life balance and the implementation of firm boundaries, is considered and implemented. Clearly, remote working should not be an excuse to work people to the bone – regardless of their pay packets – and nor should the work, life balance be considered, as it often is, solely a matter of childcare. In some instances, it is a case of employees wanting to take part in and engage in other activities outside of work.  Creating a company culture and company values that support work flexibility, a good work/life balance and mental wellbeing starts with strong leadership at the top of the organisation.

Directors of a well-run organisation should feel confident and empowered to define the company culture and values and ensure that board decisions align with the agreed culture.

Asking employees to work 12 hour days or employers thinking that they can contact staff at all hours of the day and expect a response, is not only unfair but it risks burn-out, depression and other negative impacts on wellbeing that will actually decrease performance. So this is an issue that aligns what is good for both people and profits.

Productivity gains through a clear return to work policy

What is important to stress is that company culture and values should not be seen as the ‘fluffier’ part of employment policy. Far from it, a workforce that is able to work flexibly and happily will be more productive and will improve company performance, according to an April 2021 report by the CIPD which showed that overall more than two thirds (71%) of employers said that the increase in homeworking has either boosted or has made no difference to productivity.

Indeed, the CIPD is calling on organisations and government to make the right to request flexible working a day-one right. While COVID-19 has driven an increase in remote working, 46% of UK employees still do not have flexible working – whether that be remote working, flexi-time, job shares, compressed hours, part-time working or other flexible working arrangements – in their current role, according to CIPD research. And those without access to flexible working are around twice as likely to be dissatisfied in their job, compared to those who do.

The CIPD’s Flex From 1st campaign is encouraging employers to support flexible working for all and the right to request flexible working from day-one of employment and is calling for a change to UK law.

In our case, at Bridgehouse, our team has always been able to work remotely or from our Central London office and we have always provided the flexibility for people to work in a way that aligns with their lives. We have only ever found this to be a positive for our business and our clients.


The UK Corporate Governance code contains the following provisions:

  1. The board should establish the company’s purpose, values and strategy, and satisfy itself that these and its culture are aligned. All directors must act with integrity, lead by example and promote the desired culture.
  2. The board should ensure that workforce policies and practices are consistent with the company’s values and support its long-term sustainable success. The workforce should be able to raise any matters of concern.

Making meaningful progress towards flexible working, may only require small changes in the company culture and value framework and it is just such a transition that we at Bridgehouse are often asked to help steer and guide. A Company Secretary can help the Board recognise the importance of good governance to protect the organisation’s assets and resources.

One of the first steps in that process is a review of your company values and making sure that the agreed and published values will promote the desired culture within your organisation.

Phased return to work: Handling the transition

It’s easy to discount the stories around Goldman Sachs as those of the cut-throat world of investment banking but in fact they have highlighted far wider issues and challenges about the phased return to work and the implications in terms of company profitability, company culture and values.

Hire a governance expert from Bridgehouse Company Secretaries

We offer a range of corporate governance services to suit businesses of all sizes and types. Contact us on 0845 055 8260 or email info@bhcsecretaries.co.uk to see how we can help.

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