If you are, you’re in the minority.
Summer is here, vaccination rate is on the rise and health safety restrictions are being lifted a little more. It feels like all human beings are starting to breathe and live again. What’s not to be happy about? It’s all good now, isn’t it? Aren’t we going back to “normal”? It’s not that simple.
I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was asking: ‘’when are we going back to the office’’? Most weren’t mentally and physically prepared to work from home full-time, 5 days a week. It was like we needed to go back. Now that we are finally contemplating the end of COVID-19 and that we have spent the last year and a half at home, the narrative and wants have changed…a complete 180-degree change! According to recent Canadian and US surveys, about 80% of employees don’t want to go back to work in-person at their corporate offices post-covid. (1) At least not for 5 days a week, maybe 3. (2)
Whether or not the pandemic has created trauma for some employees, thinking about an imminent return to their “normal” physical workplace can mentally impact each person differently. Regardless, as revealed by surveys, 72% of employees said working from home makes them less stressed. (3) We can then safely assume that the anxiety level of the majority is on the rise as organizations are communicating their in-office return plan and expectations.
Let’s dig deeper into this important stressful dilemma for the workforce and organizations. Especially when views on productivity, working hours and engagement don’t seem to be aligned between employees and employers. I will be drawing parallels with my own few personal returns to the office after going through mental health challenges and recoveries, which are in many ways comparable to what most workers are currently facing.
Why don’t people want to return to the office?
These are the main reasons for not wanting to return to the office, according to surveys:
Why do some people want to go back?
Despite time saved from commuting and increased flexibility, longer workdays and heavier workloads have become a reality for many workers, making it more stressful and challenging for them to disconnect while at home. (9)
And what about the employer point of view?
According to recent polls, employers responded as follow:
Despite this rather low percentage, employers and employees have opposite views on productivity and hours worked during the pandemic. From an employee’s perspective (which I understand), this divergence has been a high stressor and frustration point. Many surveys11,12,13 reported that between half to three quarters of workers said they paid the “COVID tax” meaning they did more hours (including nights and weekends for some) than pre-pandemic. Additionally, workers felt more productive with an increase in the quality of their work. (14,15,16,17)
Safeguarding the corporate culture is an important argument heard in favor of a return to the office. Idea generation, innovation development, quick corridor chats, level of engagement and team spirit are also elements that can usually be maximized by face-to-face interactions.
Here’s what I’ve learned
I have experienced a few returns to the office after going through psychological struggles. I feel the COVID-19 pandemic was similar in terms of 1) having to accept a situation that was out of my control, 2) adapting to it, 3) changing my perceptions and behaviors toward it, and 4) spending more time home.
My first experience was after a burnout, then 10 years later after a severe depression and more recently when starting my own business. In each scenario, I went back to work positively changed but not without many questions, fear, anxiety, new needs and hope. Here are my key observations:
I had time to know myself better and reflect on my life, work and rearrange my priorities
I had worked hard to become a better version on myself (and needed to continue that)
I anxiously wondered:
How will my employer support me? (part-time/gradual return, flexible schedule, reduced workload or additional resources, other tools to support me?)
How will I be able to maintain my self-care? (e.g. time for psychotherapy, practice my mental wellness tools and apply my strategies)
How will I be perceived by my boss, colleagues, and the organization? (with the existing stigma around mental health, especially at work)
Are my chances of promotion now gone?
Will I still be trusted to carry important tasks?
Will I be perceived as weak, sick, or disabled?
Who will I be able to talk to and trust if I need support?
When coming back, I not only had to re-organize and adapt to my daily schedule (family, work, meals, chores, meditation, exercising…), get use to commuting again twice a day and refresh my work entire but also “re-learn” the corporate/office life (red tape, gossip, egos, social, non-verbal cues…). On the bright side, seeing and interacting with my colleagues, vendors and clients felt good. Same for my sense of belonging. Without having to disclose details, I made sure to communicate to my boss my needs, propose a plan and demonstrate I can be trusted, productive, flexible, and performing. It was important as I often made progressive returns and worked from home too. What was the outcome? After my various returns to work, I rated Constantly Exceed Expectations in my year-end review.
Where to go from here…
As days and weeks go by, it will be interesting to see how both the employees’ and employers’ perspective, needs and wants evolve (for better I hope).
The post-pandemic return to the office brings a unique opportunity to share our “peerness” among colleagues, including with our bosses. It means that we all have shared the same experience of struggles, uncertainty and fear caused by this global crisis. From business owners, to CEOs, to managers, to employees, we all have been impacted by Covid-19, at different levels maybe, but in the same time period, with the same restrictions. So let’s open up to each other and use this unique chance to reset. Use this pandemic as an opportunity to bring us closer, create more empathy, unity and understanding. A chance to be better human beings at work and in our personal lives.
All the best to those who are returning to the office. I’m leaving you with data and food for thoughts to help preserve your mental wellness at work during this transition time.
If you’re an employee thinking about returning to the office, you may want to…
– Clearly communicate your needs, concerns, and ideas
– Be opened to try the proposed return plan and self-assess
– Show more flexibility at least for the first weeks of the return
– Practice self-care like breathing, taking mindfulness breaks and using self-compassion
– Take advantage of the mental health support and resources offered by your employer
– Remember you always have a choice and control over your perspective and behavior
“Employees are looking for companies that put their well-being and experience first . . . [and] they want the ability to choose where they work . . . and have the power to control their own schedules.” (19)
“A majority (96 percent) of respondents believe a company culture that promotes mental and/or physical well-being matters. And when asked what factors play into establishing and maintaining a good company culture, 71 per cent of those surveyed felt leadership was most important, with 43 percent citing flexible work environments and schedules.” (20)
“A majority (58 percent) of employees surveyed would like a hybrid-work arrangement that gives them the option to work from home or at the office once the pandemic ends.”21
“Almost half of respondents would look for another role that allowed remote work. Some 35 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement: “If my superiors ordered me to go back to the office, I would start to look for another job where I can work from home.”22
If you’re an employer who wants to support returning employees, you may want to:
Clearly communicate your return plans and expectations
Be opened to comments, feedback, needs, and ideas (internal survey?)
Be flexible at least for the first weeks of the return
Be transparent, honest and trust your employees
Provide solid mental health support, resources, and programs (like ERGs – Employee Resource Groups)
Assess and honestly ask: Is our corporate culture a human experience? If not, why? What is our plan to change and sustain it?
“While prior to the pandemic, a small percentage of the workforce disclosed their disabilities to their employers, as we all return to working out of our offices, there could be an increase in employees disclosing disabilities. This increase in disclosures will mean that any return to the office program will also require accommodation and support of these employees.” (23)
“Leading employers have moved away from thinking about how to pay for and manage their programs, to asking how their programs can treat employees who need them “like they’re a human being”. “The programs you end up with and the way you deliver them ends up being quite different” (24)
“Introducing more mental-health supports to their benefits programs, including training for managers to recognize the early signs of mental-health issues.” (25)
“All employer respondents said mental-health issues are their top pandemic-related concern for staff, followed by the impact of childcare and elder care support (80 percent) and physical health issues (59 percent).”(26)
“If remote work is here to stay, then employers must ensure they’re creating a corporate culture that promotes physical and mental well-being and offers greater flexibility in the way their employees work.” (27)
“Since some employees experienced trauma during the pandemic, it’s a good idea for employers to have resources readily available for people leaders about how to identify people who are potentially struggling and how to have conversations about those observations. It’s important to de-stigmatize therapy, counselling and support. The coronavirus crisis has been hard for many employees and normalizing anxious or difficult feelings will help them reach out for the help they need.” (28)
“Employers should allow for some self-determination of pacing in the return to the workplace. As employees have probably reorganized their days working from home around their home lives, it will be important to be flexible about the start and end of a workday or allow employees the ability to continue to work from home for some of the work week, at least in the beginning.” (29)
2020-2021 survey sources used for this article:
1,5,14,22 Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies
2,3,4,6,7,8,15,27 Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics
9,11,16,24 ADP Inc. and the Angus Reid Institute
10,12,17,18,26 Chartered Financial Analyst Institute
13 Robert Half Survey
19,20,21 Citrix Systems Inc
23 Nathan Friedman, FastCompany: Workplace Evolution, 6-16-21
25 Mercer’s most recent global trends report
28,29 Benefits Canada
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