After some 20 months of remote work, more and more companies are bringing their employees back into the office, but many employees have mixed and complicated feelings about the change.
Adding to the stress is all the remaining uncertainty. As the pandemic proves hard to shake, companies keep pushing back their return dates, and many haven’t come out with mask or vaccination policies.
For decades, psychological research has highlighted some of the key variables that make workers thrive, as well as those that significantly impact the probability that someone will be engaged, productive, and happy with their careers (or not).
Being part of a community, an organization, learning more about oneself and others from more intimate teamwork, are essential values of being part of the world but at the same time it’s OK to grieve for your pandemic routine.
For those who were less happy with the job, its commute or the formality of uniform appearance, work became a new, more flexible and integrated part of life. And, for many in this cohort, the prospect of going back to the office involves a significant element of loss.
Although people are different, and their circumstances are unique, it is likely that some of these factors explain their preference for avoiding a return to the office:
We all enjoy work more when we are not micromanaged, oppressed, or constrained by a strict or rigid set of rules and parameters. The less freedom and autonomy you have at work, the less you will be able to express your curiosity and creativity. While the pandemic severely restricted our autonomy by confining us to our homes and turning every day like into an endless marathon of virtual meetings, as we began to adjust and the virus became contained, we enjoyed more independence, and were able to structure our own work according to our preferred personal parameters: adapting work to our life rather than our life to work.
Now that the hardest part appears to be over, we should not expect people to want to return to the “old” normal, but rather to expect an evolution of work that factors in their new life routine and respects what they have built and redesigned during this challenging year and a half. Since everyone will be in a different situation, the best we can do is give them autonomy, and treat them as responsible adults and assume that they will relish a sense of ownership over their lives and careers. Giving them the option to come to the office when they feel the need is obviously a plus but forcing people in will likely backfire.
The last 18-months have confirmed what many people knew even before the pandemic, namely that it is perfectly possible to be as productive working from home, if not more. Productivity is output divided by input, so simply by saving the time (for many, hours) spent on commuting, pointless in-person meetings, and impression management, your productivity should go up even if your output stays the same. This explains why working from anywhere (WFA) during pandemic lockdowns has not resulted in a productivity decrease, even though it came with the extra burden of home schooling, health anxieties, precarious internet speed, and relationship challenges. In that sense, if you remove the actual contextual challenges of the pandemic but retain the beneficial aspects of WFA, we should expect even bigger advantages, not least if people are choosing to work remotely rather than being forced to. So you can expect productivity to be higher in this group than in people who are forced to do so, often with no training and inadequate resources.
Many people feel that they are mostly called back to the office because managers don’t trust them enough. That if they don’t see what they are doing, or where they are, they may assume that they are not working. This is ironic since the office is the best place to manage impressions and fake performance: it is a lot harder to pretend to work when nobody is watching. It also highlights an unwillingness – or inability – in managers to evaluate what people actually contribute, which makes everything else questionable: if you can’t set clear measurable targets to your employees, how will you give them feedback, how will they know whether they are doing well or not, and how will you justify your performance evaluations?
Trust is actually less important than we think: if you give people clear and relevant tasks, with the necessary instructions, resources, and incentives to achieve them, you can just let them get on with it and see what they deliver. For sure, it is not where you are but what you do that matters, and long before the pandemic it was clear that for many people work was not the best place to get work done. If you trust that your people want to be here, then give them the space to do their work. It’s performance that counts rather than number of hours at work.
These are just some of the reasons why people may be reluctant to return to the office, at least full time. Even if most of these reasons apply to you, you are still likely to value having an office to go to, and having the chance to meet in person with colleagues. The in-person time we invest on others gives us a great deal of virtual credit, which is why it’s usually harder to work with people remotely when you never met them in person.
We should also accept that just because people are reluctant to do something doesn’t mean they are right. In that sense, the best thing organizations can do to persuade people to spend more time at the office – if that is indeed their goal – is to prove them wrong. This is rarely a function of showing them data, but rather, of letting them experience the benefits of being at the office, which requires making offices a more appealing environment and work proposition than the alternatives, and the cost-benefit analysis being not based on carrots or sticks, but self-motivated choices.