As lockdowns end and restrictions loosen, workers all around the world are returning to the office. While remote work isn’t going anywhere, it’s hybrid work that’s now widely viewed as “the future of work”—and this means that millions of people will be asked to return to the office, even if they’d rather not. But where once the worst thing about heading into the office might have been a long commute or an inflexible schedule, today many people’s concerns run much deeper. So in our post-pandemic world, how can everyone prepare for a return to the office?
Return to office anxiety
If you’re feeling anxious about returning to the office, it’s important to stress that you’re certainly not alone—or even a minority. Last year, a PwC survey found that 70% of workers didn’t want to return to the office, with over half citing fear of getting sick as their main worry. While the vaccine may have alleviated this specific fear, there are several other factors that can create anxiety about returning to the office.
The first is that from an evolutionary basis, transitions naturally trigger anxiety. Familiar situations are safe and predictable, whereas unfamiliar situations cause us to be alert and on the lookout for potential threats. Because of this, changes and transitions can be extremely stressful. While it may seem like we’re returning to a familiar situation—our old job—the truth is that it isn't the same. Our world has changed and our jobs, and the cultural norms of our workplace, have changed with it.
Social behavior and boundaries have changed too. Pre-pandemic, you probably didn’t know or care how your colleagues felt about health decisions like vaccines; today, these types of beliefs can make or break friendships. There’s a stark contrast between how many of us want to live our lives: some of us want to forgo masks, enjoy social lunches with colleagues, and “go back to normal”; others are more cautious, preferring to keep their masks on and eat lunch alone at their desk. Feeling judged for our beliefs, or separate from the camaraderie of coworkers, is another factor that exacerbates return to office anxiety.
How companies can support employees return to the office
Faced with these concerns, which can be very consuming, companies have a huge responsibility to support employees who are anxious about returning to the office. One of the most important things managers can do is to take time to find out how and why people are feeling the way they are, so companies are able to respond directly to their worries. Remember that many people might be concerned that speaking openly about their fears may cause them to be judged, so consider asking for feedback anonymously.
Once you understand the reasons behind any return to office anxiety, use the insights you glean to actually try to tackle the issues—e.g. if people are worried about becoming sick, you can make sure everyone is aware of the health precautions you’re putting in place. Whatever people are worried about, the key thing is to make sure people feel listened to and heard—and that their worries aren’t being minimized or swept under the carpet.
Offering as much flexibility as you’re able to can also be enormously helpful in alleviating certain concerns about returning to the office. The past 18 months have been hugely stressful for most of us, and many people have struggled not only with sickness or anxiety, but with feelings of isolation, with mental health problems, and with the pain of racial injustice and other political issues. So rather than bringing in mandates about returning to the office, see if you can allow employees to experiment with different ways of working, and figure out what works best for them.
Above all, be compassionate. No matter the degree of flexibility you’re able to offer employees, it won’t mean much if management appears unsupportive, or lacking empathy. Small actions, like asking people if they’re OK or offering to help, can be instrumental in making people feel seen and supported. There isn’t a vaccine for feeling invisible, or inept or isolated, so it’s up to us to be proactive and show compassion whenever we can. Change is stressful, so when it comes to spotting the signs of burnout, now’s the time to be more vigilant than ever.
How we can all take agency when returning to the office
Of course, managing anxieties around returning to the office post-lockdown isn’t just down to managers—we all have the agency to make the transition a little easier. This effectively comes down to positive framing and taking ownership of our work experience.
We can start by reminding ourselves of the advantages of being office-based. Culture is a big one: interacting with colleagues in person can help create a sense of togetherness, which can have a huge impact on engagement and productivity, as well as overall job happiness and finding a sense of purpose at work. After more than a year of isolation and quarantines, spending time (safely) with coworkers should be something to celebrate.
Then there’s collaboration, which can be infinitely easier in-person. Being able to have informal catch-ups or spontaneous chats can go a long way in moving projects along and getting good work done—which can make us feel accomplished and successful, and like we’ve contributed something important to our company. Most of us are more than familiar with the concept of Zoom fatigue by now, and collaborating in-person, unscheduled, is often the ideal antidote.
And finally, it’s crucial to remember that our working world looks very different post-pandemic. The importance of employees having flexibility and agency is now recognized and understood, and in many ways it’s up to us to figure out what we want (and don’t want) from work. Take a while to think about key factors like what you want your working day to look like, what creates stress for you, and what you value most about your job.
Once you’ve figured out how you’d like to move forward in your job, don’t be afraid to ask your employer for what you want. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from the past 18 months, it’s that we’re all capable of change—and there’s no reason why these changes shouldn’t benefit us.