Ever since vaccinations became widely available to adults, the conversation on HR departments and C-suites and Teams conversations across the country has centered on the same topic: how, and when, are we going to come back to the office? Some organizations rolled out plans in the summer, only to roll them back with the spread of the Delta variant; others have obsessively set dates only to push them forward at the last minute. Depending on your industry and the politics of your state, you might have been called back in months ago and are now grappling with the muddy in-between space of zooming with your colleagues while in the office.
Whatever your situation is, all of this probably feels messy, and fraught, and unsatisfying. I’ve spent the last 20 months talking to various companies, experts and employees about the pitfalls and promising changes that can accompany the shift from fully remote or optional office time to at least some mandatory in-person time, and the best overarching advice I can give is that it’s going to keep feeling messy, and fraught, and unsatisfying for awhile — but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways for employees and employers to mitigate and address those feelings.
1) Recognize That the Future Is Flexibility
Companies determined to go back in time to pre-COVID-19 norms are in for a harsh reality. It probably won’t manifest immediately, but it will show up in the long term: in the form of attrition, in difficulty hiring, in stymied efforts to diversify. Depending on your organization and the type of person you’d like to work there, flexibility might involve any number of combinations of remote and in-person work. But people have become accustomed to a new way of working and many have no desire to simply return to the way things were. Either you’re going to fight that tide and watch people leave, or start grappling with the future now. It’s your decision.
2) Keep Communicating the Process
Maybe you’re letting people work wherever they’d like. Maybe you’re asking them to work from home one day a week, or asking them to come into the office one day a week. Whatever your scenario is, the more aware your employees are of expectations and plans, the less stress there will be about the unknown. But it’s equally essential to communicate a willingness to change policies that aren’t working. If, for instance, a company has decided that everyone needs to be in the office during “core hours” on certain days, but after three months, those hours feel arbitrary, pledge that you’ll try to figure out what does work best. That openness to adjustment will generally make the process of returning feel less claustrophobic.
3) Keep Soliciting Feedback — And Keep Listening to It
Asking employees for feedback and then roundly ignoring it in favor of C-suite or manager preferences is a recipe for widespread demoralization. If you’re going to rule your company by fiat and decrees from on high, pretending otherwise will just make employees resent you more. But if you’re actually interested in cultivating a flexible work environment that serves the best interest of the company at large, keep actively listening to (and acting on!) employee opinions about how they can best do their jobs. How are caretakers feeling? Parents of kids under 5? New and junior employees? Are there too many meetings — or are the meetings currently serving the wrong functions? Have job descriptions changed? There’s no better time to revisit. The more you think about “back to the office” as “figuring out the future of flexible work for all of us,” the more collaborative — and satisfying — the entire process will feel.
4) Flexible Management Is Its Own Skill
Managing people is hard. Even before the pandemic, most managers had very little training on how to do it well. And managing people in your eyeline every day is a very different skill than managing people remotely. Acknowledge that difficulty — and then figure out how best to provide the (actually valuable!) training and support that will make good, flexible management possible. Much of the pandemic was spent cultivating patience with each other as we all tried to wing it under real, compounding, escalating forms of duress. But the “just winging it” period of remote work is over. It’s time to start figuring out real, sustainable systems how we’ll work moving forward — and that includes management.
1) Acknowledge the Discomfort
When you first come back into the office, it may feel like the first day of school. But if going into an office is accompanied by the stresses of a commute, or childcare gaps, or just the overarching fear related to COVID-19 exposure, particularly for high-risk employees or parents with children not yet old enough to receive the vaccine, that feeling will quickly fade, if it emerges at all. We aren’t rubber bands that can just bounce back to our previous way of working. Be patient with yourself and whatever distress, exhaustion or confusion that arises — and work with your manager (who, see above, should also be thinking through better ways to communicate with you!) to figure out the best way to not only acknowledge them, but give yourself space to process them. That might include gradual ramp-ups, weekly check-ins (with yourself, but also with your team) about how the schedule is working, and scheduling PTO now to allow yourself to absorb some of the changes. This is a big deal; it’s O.K. to take time to try to get it right.
2) Identify Your Rhythms
When are your deep work concentration hours? What is your best time (and location) for administrative work? What about meetings and one-on-ones? Flexible work means the opportunity to craft your workday (at least in some form!) around what works best for you. You might have already been doing this to some extent during the pandemic, but the reopening of offices offers a chance to revisit your schedule in a meaningful way. On the days you work from home, how can you create on and off ramps to ease in and out of the workday? How can you block spaces in your calendar for a lunch that’s not spent in front of your computer?
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3) Revisit and Revise The Worst Parts of Remote Work
So many of the things that workers have come to loathe about remote work — hours of endless Zoom meetings, in particular — have become standardized without reason. Now, again, is a perfect time to revisit meetings and the form they take. Which Zooms could be phone calls? Which conference calls could be emails with slide decks? How would blocking your view of your own face during calls (and, by extension, the tendency to self-scrutinize) make the Zooms that remain less exhausting? How can you actually take the walk you always say you will? It took months for remote work to feel even slightly normal. It’ll take time, too, to reform the worst, most burnout-induced patterns that developed during that time.
4) Reserve the Right to Look Elsewhere
How your organization handles the transition back to the office is indicative of how it handles, well, everything. If the people in charge ignore worker concerns and questions, if guidelines feel arbitrary or punitive, if your bosses can’t understand why they’re shedding talent, there are so many other organizations, many of them hiring fully or largely remote positions, that are looking. The pandemic has clarified so many things, and the way you spend the bulk of your days is the way you spend your life. No job is perfect — but some jobs, particularly at organizations committed to figuring out a way forward in this new flexible, hybrid reality, are far better than others.
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