Work from home, or so they say, “the new normal”, is slowly becoming our new reality and people’s preferred alternative to working from the office. Could this be true?
A Harvard Business School Survey of 1500 employees showed that 81% of people either don’t want to return to the office or prefer a hybrid model of work. In addition, a PWC survey found that 70% of over 1000 workers don’t want to return to the office, with 51% saying they’re worried they’ll get sick and others mentioning the inconvenience and uncleanliness of public transportation as well as the issues around childcare.
So, why is the return to the office so stressful?
Three big factors are currently dominating this issue. The social aspect is a major concern for many; returning to the office means returning to interacting with others daily. We’ve all gotten so comfortable in our cocoons, shying away behind our screens, making the idea of navigating office politics and small talk daunting. We fear the idea of re-establishing these office boundaries and finding a way to remain comfortable in the presence of others. Secondly, safety precautions are a worry. The pandemic continues to circle us, as cases spike up and our surroundings keep getting ill. Are people vaccinated? What is the procedure at work if someone tests positive? There is a lot of discomfort in returning to a space where contracting the virus is more likely. Lastly, there is a lot of distress around work-life balance. The beauty of work-from-home is that there is so much flexibility in hours, family time, cooking, fitness, and so on. Will we be able to preserve some of that once we return to the office? Can we still incorporate the positive aspects we enjoyed from working from home?
Employees have many concerns and the overarching theme behind these three aspects is that returning to the office is a shift in routine. Nobody likes instant change; it is unsettling and intimating, especially when work-from-home has presented many of its benefits.
An interesting neuroscience phenomenon that explains how humans make sense of unexpected change is this idea of our brain’s “autopilot mode.” When the world turned its eyes to work-from-home, we were faced with unfamiliarity, so we were comforted with the idea that nobody knew what they were doing, as we were all adjusting to our new environment and expectations. However, returning to the office means we are facing something that’s supposed to be familiar. This is when our autopilot mode switches on, the shortcuts our brain takes when we undertake a familiar situation or routine. Our brains automatically divert to our subconscious routes of our in-the-office dynamics. However, those memories of our in-the-office whereabouts no longer exist because of our shifted reality. This is when the fear kicks in because suddenly we’re lost in what’s supposed to be familiar. Our brains begin to use up more energy to adjust to our new reality, causing anxiety and fear.
This apprehension has caused many managers to wonder, what can we do to ease this concern? How can we sell to people to return to the office?
The most important initial contribution to convincing people to return to the office is communicating the importance of the return. Employees appreciate transparency, authenticity, and honesty. Firstly, your teams need to know why face-to-face interaction is necessary for business? The company’s purpose must coincide with the benefits of working in the office to reiterate to people the significance of being in person. If work-from-home has been working for almost two years, why should we bring back the office? The benefits of sharing a physical workspace should be clear to your workforce. Rebuilding social connections, improving work morale, maintaining work culture, increasing performance and engagement, building collaboration, and fostering innovation are among the many positive attributes that need to be reminded in correlation with the business’s vision and values.
This can be done by listening openly and empathetically to employees’ concerns to understand their unique needs and ensure that everyone is comfortable returning to the office. People benefit from talking and sharing about what they’re experiencing. These past 18 months have been mayhem for many, so allow them space to grieve, and listen to them calmly and curiously as they express all their concerns. After listening to these concerns, take action to soothe their worries. Don’t let their openness go to waste. For example, employees who have safety concerns should be comforted by certain implemented protocols. Additionally, leaders should also share some of their own concerns and struggles to help others feel connected to them, creating an atmosphere of authenticity and relatedness.
Psychological safety is crucial in the workplace because it promotes open communication and a higher likelihood of employees adjusting back to the office. Employees who feel that they’re being looked after and that they’re in a supportive space will help generate positive feelings about returning to the office.
Courage in Change:
We face change and uncertainty on a daily basis. It’s always present in a healthy, growing business. This needs to be reminded to employees; with so many changes happening around us, many are experiencing change fatigue. Leaders must take this opportunity to be patient, compassionate, and courageous in motivating their employees to overcome this hurdle. Managers who encourage their employees to share pandemic stories with each other will help create a special experience for team bonding, while also refreshing their sense of excitement and newness about what’s to come. Sharing these stories of the past year and a half will consolidate what needs to be left in the past and what will be carried forward. Managers must then remind employees of success stories where they’ve undergone mishaps or big changes to build that confidence to bridge over this current change.
Humans are social beings. It’s intertwined in our blood and embedded in human nature. We are meant to interact and connect with others. Although the pandemic has isolated us from our colleagues, this wasn’t meant to be a permanent solution. From a mental health and well-being perspective, social interaction is healthy for the brain. It promotes a sense of safety, belongingness, and security. Evolutionary, remaining socially connected to others is essential to our survival. It lowers our anxiety and depression, regulates our emotions, increases empathy and self-esteem, and protects our immunity. Having social connections increases our happiness and replaces stress with hope and aspiration.
After working from home for so long, managers can help facilitate team bonding by organizing events for people to re-connect. Hosting team events such as happy hours or lunches help people reconnect with others, reminding them of the happiness that’s associated with being around others as well as easing the social discomfort of returning to the office.
The discomfort and fear of returning to the office are what’s standing in the way of employees and their decision to move forward. Managers can ease this anxiety by tapping into human emotions. By compassionately listening to employees’ concerns and effectively communicating the importance of the return, while also implementing the necessary changes to fit employees’ unique needs is the first step that should be taken. Managers can then build courage and confidence around this change by sharing and listening to stories to encourage team bonding, connection, and trust. Lastly, reminding employees of the beauty of social connections will be the final selling point. The underlying difference between work from home and work from office is one’s surroundings. Reconnecting employees to each other and touching upon that happiness will help refresh those memories of in-office spirit. The pandemic and the situation we’re in are sensitive, emotional topics. Managers who can manoeuvre those emotions through effective communication, embracing the courage to change, and facilitating team bonding and connection will find their employees experiencing a smoother transition, as they better understand the perks of returning to the office.