As economies and businesses start to re-open after more than a year out of the office, the modus operandi for employees is going to be a hybrid model; a mixture of remote and office work. This is the model of choice for many businesses both big and small as it enables crucial office work while also ensuring some protection as we are not completely out of the woods yet, as far as COVID is concerned.
However, a return to the office is easier said than done. After more than a year of lockdowns, many workers had adapted and even come to love working from home. They finally had the freedom and the flexibility they had been yearning for while still being close to family and friends. Workers were told to work from home, stay healthy, keep each other safe while still remaining productive at work. This they did, almost too well. A University of Chicago study found that employees worked 30% more than normal when working from home. This was also supported by a Microsoft report that discovered that work-related messages between employees jumped by about 52% between 6 pm and midnight.
As far as productivity and employee satisfaction are concerned remote work was a win-win for both employees and management. We do however need to recognize the importance of the office, no matter how effective remote work proved to be during the pandemic, it is not a complete substitute for the office, especially where teamwork is concerned.
Going back to the office is however not going to be a cakewalk. If there is something I have learnt in my employment, it is that employees do not just go along with policy changes from management. Just because some executive says employees should do something doesn’t mean they will do it. Big drastic change, such as the one we are going to inflict on employees is going to be hard to implement. This requires a lot of negotiation and understanding. It will not be quick and certainly not easy but it will be worth it.
Here are some ways executives can make it easier for employees to shift back to the office.
Close the emotional distance
Going back to the office is less about closing the physical distance than it is about the emotional distance. While some workers may be physically present at the office, they couldn’t be more distant in mind and heart. The truth is once you get used to working alone at home, this becomes your modus operandi even while at the office.
Furthermore, in a hybrid model, not all employees will be present at the same time. Some report at specific days of the week, some throughout the week and others not at all.
Managers can try to mitigate this imminent chaos by organizing “moments of small-scale, concentrated human connection.” This can include game nights, virtual water coolers or even the simple act of asking a colleague how their day or weekend was.
Set realistic goals
Managers will want to hit the ground running upon the return to the office but this may prove to be harmful. Former Google executive Laszlo Bock likens this to coaching an athlete to break a record just after coming back from injury.
The focus upon returning is to first get employees used to the office. This means that goals may need to be re-adjusted to ease workers back into the office. And yes, you will have to relax your performance standards in the initial phase.
This may help to stave off exhaustion at least until the workforce gets used to being back.
One size will not fit all
The adaptations we have made to work due to the pandemic are not going away anytime soon, no matter how hard we try. Work is never going back fully to the office. As many companies have indicated, hybrid is the new model of choice.
This mode however increases the complexity in getting employees used to the office again. Each worker will have his/her own specific days to report and this may present logistical challenges for managers trying to implement wide policies that will affect the whole workforce. A personally tailored solution for every employee will be best.
That way managers can truly get to know and thus understand the needs of each employee as they try to cox them back to the office.
The buck, however, stops with managers and executives. They are currently the custodians of what could be a paradigm shift in how we work.