Back to Work

Sabby Gill, CEO, Thomas International on how to manage the psychological return to the office.

While the government has said it will no longer instruct those who can to work at home from 19 July, the majority of businesses are taking a cautious approach to bringing staff back to the office. And so they should.

Alongside the still-present risks surrounding Covid-19 infections, a large majority of the population has been working remotely for nearly 18 months. From new graduates who know no other way of working life, to those established in their career, everyone has been psychologically impacted by working through the pandemic to some degree.

We cannot rush to return to the office. Nor can there be a one-size fits all approach. We all adapted differently to remote working back in March 2020 and so we will all adjust to the re-opening of society in varying ways too. For business leaders and HR teams, the most important questions to answer are – how will my people adapt and how can I best support them?

The psychological impact of returning to the office

Pre-pandemic, the average UK commute was an hour, which means the average commuter has gained back five hours a week while working remotely. In most cases, this isn’t just a time saver – with rail ticket prices increasing significantly, many have saved financially and benefitted from extra time to sleep and recuperate during the working week.

The psychological impact of the practicalities of waking up earlier and commuting to the office on even a semi-regular basis could be long-lasting and result in reduced productivity and even higher attrition. Workers may even come to resent bosses who mandate a full return to office life after months of enjoying flexibility.

In fact, our recent research found that a third (33 per cent) of UK workers would leave their current employer if they were encouraged to go back to the office full time. Nearly two thirds (60 per cent) want their company to adopt some level of hybrid working, with just 7 per cent preferring five days a week in the office.

Successfully returning to the office

Clearly, accommodating hybrid working practices will be a competitive factor over the coming months. And we will likely see a surge in job hunting from workers whose employers embrace traditional practices looking for more flexible working arrangements.

What’s equally important is that companies carefully manage the return to the office. It’s essential that business leaders look out for signs of psychological distress over the coming months. People’s behaviour naturally changes day-to-day but if there is an enduring change in attitude towards colleagues and tasks, it may be a sign that someone is modifying their behaviour to act in a way they don’t enjoy.

We have all adjusted our lives to a remote working pattern and some may find the return to commuting and office work creates more challenges than it did in the past. Understanding the psychological make-up of employees will enable business leaders to embrace the right flexible and hybrid working practices for their workforce, that both support employee wellbeing and productivity.

Take those who have a strong social-orientation – they will enjoy being able to interact with colleagues and clients more easily as offices open up again. They may even experience higher levels of motivation if they can engage with people more often in person and in a wider social circle in the workplace. The flip side of this is that there will be people who despair at the thought of more extroverted conversations and distractions.

Business leaders will need to keep all this in mind when deciding how and when to reintroduce the office into the company’s day-to-day. In practical terms, this will most likely require defining a consistent pattern of office days and non-office days while still remaining flexible. There really can’t be a one size fits all approach.

The genie is out of the bottle and businesses will suffer if they carte blanche enforce a return to the traditional 9 to 5. Science has helped us navigate our way through the pandemic. And by understanding the psychology of teams, business leaders will be in the best position to successfully manage the return to the office.

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