As we (yet again), emerge from our Zoom cocoons and various degrees of lockdown, organisations are taking stock of their return-to-office (RTO) plans. Employers should be conscious that employees could experience different and new forms of stress. There may be for some, a certain amount of anxiety around the concept of returning to previous, and or new ways of working, engaging with people face-to-face.
Introducing FORO (Fear of Returning to the Office)
Businesses are gearing up to welcome employees back to offices as vaccination rates increase and social distancing restrictions ease in many parts of the globe. Some employees are enthusiastic about returning to the routine of office life to escape “disturbances” at home and see colleagues in real life. However, some are less eager to leave remote working behind.
For many of us, our resilience and mental health have taken a blow throughout the past two years, thanks to numerous and lengthy lockdowns, the cacophony of media attention on COVID and often limited healthy outlets, such as socialising and gyms etc. to deal with the enormity of change that was thrust upon us.
So, it’s no wonder that there is some FORO. It’s unlikely that things will go back to the way they were pre-pandemic and for the most part we should view this as positive change. Covid catapulted businesses forward on the work from home (WFH) front and for many employees this was a blessing. I.T. departments were forced to make it work and now that employees have had a taste of WFH some are reluctant to go back, because they like it and the work life balance it offers, whilst others will be reluctant to return due to fears and concern.
Now I have never been overly germaphobic and I’ll admit that the 3 second rule of food falling on the floor, has on occasion blown out to 30… ok 45 seconds, depending on how tasty the dropped treat was and how many people were watching. But even I have found myself worried about the hygiene of those around me, at shops, or of late, on public transport. I have caught myself getting a tad anxious when someone steps inside my 1.5 metre (5 feet) bubble when queuing for a coffee or when seeing someone not wearing a mask when they perhaps should.
So how do businesses quell the fears of their employees and provide them with a smooth and supported RTO and how do employees best prepare themselves?
It may be obvious, but this will be about getting back to basics. Frequent and clear communication is going to be key, setting out an RTO plan at both an organisational and individual level is a good start. Keeping everyone informed before, during and after the transition will go a very long way toward minimising stress around the unknown.
How About We Just Get On With It?
According to Alicia Walf, a neuroscientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of the most effective ways to overcome FORO may simply be to get back into it, pointing out that “positive human connections are the most powerful tools for minimising stress”.
To improve health of our brains and control anxiety, she suggests that a return to normalcy after a long period of continuous stress can be a crucial step forward for brain health.
Of course, the message “just get on with it” won’t sit well with you, many internal comms teams or employees for that matter. So, let’s add some science and a personal story behind the positive power of human connection.
Happy Brain Chemicals
Almost three years ago, before all of this pandemic palaver, I made the bold and scary step of leaving the (what I now consider) the comfort of corporate life and started my own business. I went from having loads of colleagues to bounce ideas off, team mates with strengths to compliment my weaknesses and a bunch of amazing humans to lead, to just me, myself and an idea.
It was exciting, daunting, and bloody tough. I had worked hard on branding, a business plan and a website, but, what I had not planned for was the drain on my mental health. I was for the first time in my working career confronted by a sense of loneliness, a sudden loss of a sense of belonging and an ever-increasing amount of self-doubt. Couple all that with an emerging bug from Wuhan and it was a perfect recipe for a trip to a psychologist (another first for me). After learning some handy techniques on how to cope with all these newfound challenges I was also recommended by my trusted local GP to start with some anti-depressants.
At first, the thought of this was terrifying and embarrassing, however when the Doctor explained that it was just an extra boost of serotonin, it made it a much easier pill to swallow… literally. I still wonder why marketeers haven't got onto this one and called them mood boosters instead of anti-depressants... I digress.
Back to the point of the story, serotonin is a chemical our bodies naturally produced when we feel admired, respected and when we feel trust of others. It helps boost your confidence, happiness and so much more.
It's a chemical that can be boosted when we socialise with others and when we exercise, so when you’re isolated (or locked down) and not interacting with others, it makes sense that your serotonin levels could drop.
The other chemical that released into our body through face-to-face interactions is oxytocin. Oxytocin is released into our body when we create emotional bonds with others and also, through physical touch. When oxytocin is released we get the warm and fuzzies, it happens when we spend time with people we enjoy being around and through physical touch. Yes even at work, through something as simple as a humble handshake or well-executed high five!
So when you or your colleagues are feeling a little FORO remember, there are scientific benefits to being back in the office.
Ok, so maybe by now you’re thinking that you might give the office life a nudge again, but are not sure how to start. Here’s some tips I found helpful which may help you and your organisation too:
Self-care and routine
Start getting into the rhythm of a regular workday week before you RTO to help with a smoother transition. Follow a healthy routine with consistent sleep timings, timely meals, enough physical activity, and even some scheduled relaxation time. You could even start doing what I did by building in some fake travel time, taking a walk around the block before you open the laptop which can get your body and brain familiar with the travel time again.
Start setting your expectations
Look into the COVID safety policy of your office to what’s changed with regards to the physical environment, hygiene and processes so you know what to expect. Ensure you feel protected and comfortable while in the office, and if not communicate your concerns. Being familiar with the policies helped me with lowering my FORO, knowing cleaning practices are being applied along with other COVID safe practices.
Acknowledge the discomfort
You're not a rubber band that can immediately bounce back to your previous way of working. Try to be patient with yourself and with whatever exhaustion, distress, or confusion may come. Give yourself space to process it all. Remember it’s okay to take time to get it right.
Even though returning to the office and wearing masks are big changes in many routines and may be producing feelings of anxiety, it’s worth thinking ahead to the benefits the social engagement will have, such as potentially lowering long-lasting negative impacts of stress.
Adaptability is a crucial part of resiliency to stress, and a practical skill to work on as we adjust to the changing world.
A Note to Organisations – Slow Your Roll
Some companies like Google have asked their employees back to the office, which in my humble opinion, is fair enough. Let’s not forget the investment organisations have put into state-of-the-art workplaces. It sure beats the laptop on the ironing board right? So, you might understand why they want to ensure the investment is being used. Let’s also consider some of the small businesses that stake their survival on office foot traffic. City window fronts have become ghost towns and it's a grim reminder of some of the impacts the pandemic has had on small business. However, organisations that refuse to think the world has moved on or changed is in for a big shock. Forcing employees back to the office full time will quickly see the organisation on the wrong end of the great resignation. Employees will vote with their feet and migrate to companies that get the hybrid model right. So, if you are reading this and are in a position to influence the RTO and are thinking, “great now that we’re open we can just jump backwards a few years”, then let me echo the words of the great Barry White – “slow your roll”. The office is not going anywhere. There will be employees who are chomping at the bit to get back and others with genuine FORO. Breath… The future is hybrid and you will find a way to make it work for you, your employees and the physical space of your workplace.
The Future of Work is Kind
We are in a unique time in history where we can shape how we work, where we work and when we work. This will require immense human change which, requires kindness. Bob Kerry said it best – “Unexpected Kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change”. So with a blank canvas of possibility in front of us where the future of work could be anything – let it first be kind.