As offices worldwide gradually reopen, employees report mixed feelings about it. On one hand, the sudden shift to WFH last year was marked by new stressors, a blur in work-life distinctions, and a sense of alienation for many remote workers. On the other hand, many rose up to the challenge surprisingly well. As people have been embracing the seemingly permanent change in the way we work, they have displayed resilience and rewired their own productivity patterns to thrive.
Now, organisations are at the cusp of another shift. Since March of 2021, Microsoft, Facebook, Uber, Google and others have slowly started to offer flexible arrangements to employees to bring them back to the office. What business leaders must keep in mind, however, is that the rules of engagement are very different this time around. Rather than a seamless return to the pre-pandemic state, it is important to anticipate, acknowledge, and address the psychological barriers that employees may face.
4 Psychological Barriers Your Employees Could Be Facing
Research by the World Economic Forum (WEF) indicates that two-thirds of people around the world want to work flexibly even after the pandemic. Keeping this in mind, organisations must recognise the effect of psychological barriers as offices reopen for the first time in over a year.
Re-acclimating with face-to-face interactions - Employees are now comfortable with remote collaboration patterns. Face-to-face interactions may cause concerns around social distancing, hygiene, health, and a sense of claustrophobia as people gather in shared spaces like meeting rooms, lobbies, and others.
Fears around the loss of autonomy - During WFH, employees enjoyed flexibility in scheduling and benefitted from an outcome-first work environment. There are concerns that office or hybrid models will be more process-oriented and require a degree of presenteeism that erodes this newfound autonomy.
Keeping up with changing regulations and policies - Like many companies, Apple had planned to start hybrid work from September 2021, but was forced to postpone due to the Delta variant. New case patterns and consequent regulations could prevent employees from finding a stable balance in their own working patterns.
Disruption in work-life balance - This is particularly true for caregivers and parents. The additional requirements of an office like the time spent commuting or getting dressed will make it harder to fulfill personal obligations. One finding from EngageRocket’s State of Employee Experience survey in Singapore shows that caregivers are at higher risk for burnout than their counterparts (30% vs. 22%).
Weighing the Pros and Cons
A study of the potential psychological barriers to office/hybrid work begs a crucial question – what are the trade-offs? The answer will vary from one organisation to another, and between regions. For example, a comparative study between the UK and the US revealed that UK workers can be persuaded to return to the office if a boss or a friend is there as well (37%). Americans, on the other hand, are more keen on avoiding bad weather during their commute.
At EngageRocket, our research on the Singapore workforce suggests that organisations will risk an engagement and productivity trade-off if they choose to return to an office or hybrid model. Remote workers report higher levels of engagement as well as productivity, i.e 77% of remote workers feel productive vs. 73% of office workers.
McKinsey’s study echoes these results, and looks deeper into the impact on mental health when these workers return to office. There is a well established correlation between positive mental health at work and employee engagement and productivity. The key insight here is that some workers will experience a negative impact on mental health on return to office leading to 5x reduced responsibility at work.
In other words, employers may expect an initial productivity loss as employees return to the office. Organisations should take concrete steps towards positive mental health to re-energise the productivity curve in the upcoming months.
Recommendations for Employers: It Starts with Data
Our research also indicates that employee resilience has dipped in the last year, and this is what needs to be restored if employers are to institute a successful return-to-office program. There’s been a 17 percentage-point dip in employees’ confidence in their organisation’s future in 2021 compared to 2020, which will impact their productivity and engagement. To address this, employers must:
Beyond one-off gestures about the availability of employee benefits, organisations must demonstrate that they care about employees – both about individual health and overall mental wellbeing. You can do this by empowering managers who are already more engaged than regular employees (2.3x times) but tend to provide employees with less support and feedback in 2021 than they did in 2020.
Offer tailored wellbeing plans
Millennials, caregivers, and older employees have varying needs and expectations. For example, millennials are the most likely to quit if remote work is unavailable, and 50+ year-old remote workers are the most productive. Assess sentiment and listen to the Voice of the Employee (VoE) with intelligent segmentation and analysis to design effective wellbeing plans.
Formulate a mindful productivity mix
According to a study of the Chinese workforce, 10.8% of employees are likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning to work. Productivity pressures further add to this challenge. Our research found that 93% of employees with “low workload” can avoid burnout vs. only 36% with “high workload.” Therefore, productivity benchmarks and performance management need to be factored in for the transition.
These are tactical and strategic responses that must be built on a foundation of data. WEF finds that employee needs may vary wildly – for example, employees in France are ready to work from home for only 1.9 days a week compared to 3.4 days in India. Employers are advised to survey their workforce, ask the right questions, and build the return-to-office/hybrid model on an honest estimation of their unique VoE.