Several of my direct reports are asking what the company’s plans are for returning to the office. We don’t have a clear policy announcement yet. I don’t know what to tell them or even what our best course of action is.
Feeling My Team’s Anxiety
How and when we emerge from our Covid-impacted work circumstances to a new version of normal is a big, sprawling topic.
At its core is a great deal of uncertainty which is broadly triggering fear and anxiety.
We are trying to find our way in unchartered territory. Wanting to run full speed in the dark but actually slowing down because the way is not clear and feels full of potholes.
Many have been traumatized by Covid and that anxiety is compounded by 1) the impending change; and 2) the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
I did some research and the more I looked into the topic of the future of work, the more complicated the issue became. There are many leadership choices and unintended consequences to watch for.
While there isn’t space here to explore all the issues, I can share some themes with links to relevant articles.
First, a Harvard Business Review article addresses the core issues of employees being anxious about returning to work. It stresses open communication, compassion and flexibility in how employees transition back to the office.
While there is widespread unease about returning to an office and lots of press about workers wanting to stay virtual, there is also a survey that reports many do want to come back.
The results of a Workplace Transformation Survey [click on Download PDF] conducted by (global design firm) Stantec noted that “Collaboration and connection are key to organizational effectiveness and have not been fully supported in a virtual way.”
“And, 89% of those surveyed said they are looking forward to returning to the office because they miss face-to-face collaboration (73%) and social interaction (63%).”
While we don’t have access to the questions asked, this likely included hybrid as an option and may have polled a demographic that skewed younger.
Further, the Stantec survey summary also noted that a 2021 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends survey found that 93% of senior executives agreed that a sense of belonging drives organizational performance, one of the highest rates of consensus in a decade.
A New York Times article from July 10 [available to subscribers only], offers a perspective on the benefits of people coming together. “Collective effervescence is the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose.”
It can include group activities like working on a team, brainstorming, or one of many other kinds of social connection. Prior to Covid, collective effervescence was experienced by 75% of people at least once a week and by a third once a day. This has been missing in the isolation of Covid.
Scheduling is another core issue. It’s safe to expect that most businesses will operate on a hybrid model – most likely with about three days in the office.
An article from Inc magazine notes that a survey reports that few want to be in the office on Fridays and to a lesser extent, Mondays. Wednesdays will be busy!
This article and others recommend a mandated schedule rather than letting employees work out their own schedule. The consistency will help with people being available for meetings and also level the playing field.
A Wall Street Journal article looks at the potential pitfalls of choosing to work from home when colleagues are spending more time in the office.
The office workers will have a psychological advantage and an edge for better assignments, accruing political capital, and promotions. Also, a split of home and office is expected to disadvantage women as they are more likely to stay home for child care.
There have been widespread reports of productivity improving with remote work. I have believed from the beginning that was at least partly because of pre-existing relationships that then went remote.
A piece from MIT’s Sloan Review notes the importance and impact of social capital. The strong ties supported efficiencies and high productivity; and these strong relationships have stayed strong through ongoing interaction. It’s the relationships defined by weak ties that result from only occasional interactions across departments that have faded in their effectiveness.
There is a need to build those weak ties; they help create the social capital that supports cross functional work, reinforces culture norms and helps to orient new employees and especially young employees new to the workforce.
As if these issues weren’t enough, there are reports of a great resignation. Ariana Huffington wrote a piece in Thrive Global about how the time out of Covid has caused people to reflect on what is important to them and review their values and priorities.
Expecting a robust economy and responding to burnout, many may quit their jobs to balance their world with less work and more life. While some estimates of voluntary separation are alarming, I wonder how many will actually follow through and of those that do, if they won’t skew younger to those with fewer less burdensome financial and family responsibilities.
And today, I hear about companies that still haven’t communicated clear plans for returning to their office and yet they are expecting people to show up after Labor Day.
My suggestion is to be open and transparent. Communicate your plans, policies and the reasons behind them.
Keeping in mind that many workers are stressed out and eager for direction, inclusion and understanding, I offer this list of 10 ways of BEing for consideration.
Celebrator of success
Champion of excellence
Open to ideas from employees