In a recent Wall Street Journal article, “How to Rally a Jittery Workforce Back at the Office,” a creative agency exec described some of the dynamics he was witnessing as his firm’s employees returned to the workplace.
The exec describes his coworkers’ uneasiness about being back in close proximity. He describes hearing audible sighs as he walks past workmates’ cubicles. Are they despondent? Are they feeling trapped in the office after a year-plus of being away? He doesn’t say. What his story does suggest is that we may be in for a rough transition going back to the office, just as it was a rough transition learning to work remotely during the pandemic.
What does it mean to return to the office?
At first glance, it might seem like returning to the office is no big deal. After all, that’s where we all spent years of our lives prior to Covid. What’s the big deal?
But, psychologically, there might be more to this transition that meets the eye. For many employees, returning to the office will represent a major change of routine and a not-insignificant loss of autonomy. It may also involve feelings of separation from loved ones (e.g., parents who had extended time with their children) coupled with feelings of a loss of safety.
These misgivings are echoed by recent surveys, including one by Envoy, which found that two-thirds of US employees are anxious about the return to the office.
The emotional labor of transition
One factor that managers need to consider is that as employees make the transition back to the office, they will naturally face stresses that weren’t present even during the pandemic. For starters, by leaving their home office, employees are giving up control over their hourly schedule. Secondly, if the company doesn’t require all employees to be vaccinated, some employees may be worried about their safety in the workplace.
A return to work/life imbalance?
Even though it was difficult to juggle personal, family and work needs all at once during the pandemic, there is an entirely new stress to be found in having to return to the old ways – the pre-pandemic normal, in which home and work were separated and employees often had to make hard choices about work vs. personal priorities.
It’s no secret that the reason some managers prefer the office over remote work is that employees know they are expected to focus almost exclusively on work while at work. So, during this transition period, some employees – especially those whose employers don’t allow for hybrid work – will have to get reacquainted with that expectation, which could be jarring. For the employees who actually thrived working from home, returning to the office might feel downright oppressive.
A learning curve for hybrid workers
For employees at companies that have adopted a hybrid workplace, there may a different set of transition issues at play. Both managers and employees will have some big questions that need to be resolved, such as:
- How exactly does this hybrid thing work? Employees will have to learn a new set of workplace protocols. For instance, when should they come into the office? Some companies in Australia, where the return to work happened months ago, have encountered a new phenomenon called “midweek crowding,” in which a bulk of employees stay away from the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays and show up on Wednesdays and Thursdays. This is a problem for employers who are using hybrid work as an opportunity to reduce the size of their offices and by design cannot host a majority of workers on any given day.
- Are we truly free to work away from the office? Even if management says it’s ok to go hybrid, employees may wonder, “Do they really mean it?” or “Will I get penalized through fewer raises or promotions?” It esimply may take time for employees to learn to trust the new policy.
- How do I know what my staff is doing on any given day? Managers who haven’t managed remote employees or teams may feel insecure about how they can maintain team cohesion and employee motivation. Managing remote teams requires new skills, which managers will need to build up through experience.
- What if home doesn’t work for me? In all the press about the hybrid workplace, there are surprisingly few mentions of what options employees have on days when they’re not in the office. The good news is that an enormous global network of flexible workspaces is already in place and available to employees who simply don’t find home to be workable. These workspaces offer casual coworking, meeting rooms, dedicated desks and private offices for both individuals and teams. Many large employers are already looking at how they can make these spaces available for employees to book, just as they might book a meeting room at HQ. LiquidSpace Enterprise is a software platform that allows employers to curate and control the workspaces available, while giving employees the ability to book workspaces on demand. Learn more at LiquidSpace.com/enterprise.
Ending on a positive note
While there is plenty to be said about the difficulties of transition, we should point out that for many employees, a return to the office – even just for a portion of the week – will be a much welcome change and could be a mental health boost for many of us.