Business experts

Expert opinion: Returning to the office will mean a mental adjustment for employers and employees

Written by Jan P. de Jonge on .

Jan P. de Jonge

 

As lockdown restrictions ease, business psychologist Jan P. de Jonge looks at the best way to mentally adjust from Working At Home to Returning To Work.

Working through the pandemic has been hard. I was moved by the story of ICU nurse Anya Metten, who tweets at @AlikaRito, and who this week resigned from her NHS job, having documented her working life for a year on Twitter.

She wrote: "I'm so deflated with how the government and some public treats nurses." She won't be the only person who feels sorely let down by the government’s (mis)handling of this pandemic.

Times are challenging. But if you’re lucky enough to be in the position of being asked to ‘return to the office’ soon, still having a job or business to go back to after lockdown, then, please don’t give up.

How to make a return to work easier

Working from home, relying on the laptop and the wi-fi signal to get things done remotely has worked for many of us.

We may have had a little more freedom to decide when to start and finish those work tasks – or which room to be in when we’re working.

Humans are remarkably adaptable. Call it agility, resilience, or flexibility: we bounce back.

Returning to work in the office or, more widely, our normal place of work, may well be easier than we fear it is going to be.

What can we - organisations and the people who work in them - do to make a return to work easier, and make the best of it?

Opportunity for change

If we have learnt anything recently, it’s that you don’t have to be in an office to be productive. Realising this brings the opportunity for many to create more flexibility around where we should physically be in order to do our job and do it well.

It will require conversations between employer and employee to agree on what that realisation means.

There are big opportunities to allow for more focused, undisturbed ‘deep working’, where workers can feel it’s quite okay to work on their own, physically away or distanced from colleagues, at home, for a period of time – whether a few hours, or over several days to concentrate on a particular task.

Another opportunity is for our shared office or workspaces to be made more appropriate for group work.

The interiors of our offices can be optimised to encourage greater creativity, better meeting facilities, larger rooms for larger groups to congregate in for key gatherings, with interior design that psychologically encourages a more connected atmosphere, better teamwork, bonding, creativity and sense of comfort and mental welfare where people, products and services can develop and thrive.

Communication

From a psychological perspective, any return to work as it was before lockdown will benefit from management understanding and believing that staff need to feel involved in the process – even if, on the face of it, it may seem to management that staff ‘just want to get on with it and do their job’.

Staff who have a – perhaps unspoken – sense of having a voice in how such a return to normality is organised and given shape are probably more inclined to feel engaged and ready to give their all, on a wave of enthusiasm to ride on.

Management will need to understand – and show understanding – that staff will naturally need to ‘re-socialise’, catch up, and get eased into the higher level of sensory overload they might experience.

Productivity may not be as robust and may not reach target.

Organisations and employers that take a planned approach to communicating with their staff will be better at making their staff feel they are safe, valued and cared for.

Communication includes offering staff a clear and accessible route to asking questions and being given answers. Whereas the return to work may be staggered, the communication to facilitate that process should not be.

Such communication should be multi-disciplinary – not just designed and curated by, for example, HR or the operational manager – and offer clear information, education, instruction and allow room for discussion.

Staff need that – especially the latter.

Involvement, trust and transparency

It seems likely the world of work, the people working in it, will become more distributed.

Non-digital, real social contact between colleagues will come at a premium. The premium will be that it will cost more: more time to get together, more commuting, more use of expensive dedicated workspace, and more chance of infection and spread of illness.

To make this process evolve as smoothly as possible over time, employers will need to find a balanced approach between focusing on the core business, its raison d’être and results, and a focus on the sustainability and health of its workers, or, in fact, wider than that, its stakeholders.

Those organisations that optimally combine care for and trust in its workers with attention to ethical and commercial sustainability stand to do well and survive the storm.

They will equally focus on involving its workers, engaging with them frequently and meaningfully, strengthening mutual trust.

Two symptoms indicate a high level of trust within the organisation.

One symptom is the presence of transparency about the impact of the pandemic, its concerns, its strategy and plans for the more immediate future.

Another symptom is the high degree of (perceived) involvement of workers in giving shape to new ways of working, where workers understand and agree, for instance, to how performance is being measured and valued.

Workers that are aware that the above dynamics are at play may be more well-placed to help smooth the process of returning to work – whether in the workshop, the factory floor or the office in town.

Ultimately, communication and adaptability of employers and employees alike will make a difference.

Jan P. de Jonge is founder of People Business Psychology Ltd. His consultancy helps client organisations to assess and develop their people and their business, informed by a business-psychological approach.