- As more workers of all professions are returning to the office, many are struggling with anxiety, change management, and the logistics of restructuring their lives.
- Workers say the commute, less flexibility, possible exposure to the virus, and childcare concerns are the major factors contributing to their anxiety.
- Lack of clear communication from employers about the return to the office is exacerbating the anxiety and dread many workers are feeling about the RTO – especially those who are mandated to do so.
Why are many workers feeling anxious about being called back to the office after working remotely?
Returning to the office creates relief for some but anxiety for many. Workers who may feel uncomfortable returning to the workplace have a list of valid reasons, such as the fear of contracting COVID-19, having to deal with the stress of commuting and traffic, feeling less productive in the workplace due to distractions, and a lack of flexibility.
Letting workers choose their schedule and where they work allows for the feeling of flexibility and autonomy, which increases employee morale.
Employees who are anxious about having to work in person again might feel more productive and comfortable at home – especially if they’re introverts.
According to a survey from The Limeade Institute, the top sources of anxiety about returning to the workplace include:
- Being exposed to COVID-19 – 77%
- Less flexibility – 71%
- Commuting to work – 68%
- Wearing a mask – 54%
- Need for childcare – 22%
- Other – 7%
Zero percent of people surveyed said that they did NOT have any anxiety about returning to the workplace.
All survey participants were asked – regardless of where they were currently working – what their top sources of stress were when generally looking toward this next year.
- Health and safety of themselves and their family (82.4%) was the top selected source of stress
- Economic uncertainty (82%) was the second
- 55% of employees indicated some stress about job security
- 49% of employees cited political polarization
When asked what other aspects of their work life employees wanted to keep, these were the most desirable:
- Flexibility in work schedules – 68%
- Amount of time spent working from home – 54%
- Productivity – 58%
81% of employees reported that their productivity either stayed the same or increased. When asked if the physical space where they currently work helps them thrive, only 54% of employees felt as though that was the case, indicating that although employees may like a lot of things about working remotely, their homes may not be optimized for work.
There are positives of working from home during the pandemic, as well as downsides
- Working from home is convenient
- It gives people more autonomy
- Working solely from home means no long commutes and dealing with traffic
- Remote working allows for more time to be spent around family
- Working by oneself can increase loneliness
- It can cause relationship strains with spouses or family members
- Increased solitude can increase risk of mental health issues
- Remote work poses the risk of losing work-life balance
But working from the office full-time isn’t ideal either. Working full-time in an office can contribute to burnout and increased stress/anxiety. In 2019, 94% of American workers reported experiencing stress at their workplace. 56% of surveyed employees said that anxiety affects their job performance, and half reported a negative impact on relationships with coworkers and peers.
While not everyone may experience the same level of stress and anxiety when working in the office, it can greatly affect the performance of some employees, which is why employers may need to adopt a flexible and more empathetic return to office strategy.
Which companies are going back to the office?
Airbnb employees do not have to return to the office until September 2022. When that happens, “people aren’t going to be expected to come back to the office five days a week, every week,” according to CEO Brian Chesky.
Amazon does not plan to bring its corporate employees back to the office until Jan. 3, 2022, according to the Commercial Observer.
American Airlines is managing its corporate workers under a flexible hybrid model with management and support staff in the office three days a week. The company is planning a flexible schedule for office-based workers full-time, probably starting in the fall.
American Express is not planning a full return to office until at least Jan. 24, though those who want to come in before can voluntarily. The company is also adopting a hybrid model that will emphasize flexibility.
Apple employees are not expected to be back in the office until January at the earliest. The company has adopted a hybrid model for those returning, and is encouraging employees to get vaccinated.
Asana workers in San Francisco and New York are not expected back in the office until Feb. 1, 2022, at the earliest.
Facebook is allowing those who can do their jobs remotely to do so permanently, and does not plan to require any employees to come to the office until January.
Google pushed back its return to the office date from Oct. 18 until after Jan. 20, 2022, and those employees that do return are expected to be vaccinated unless they can prove an exemption. One-fifth of the company’s employees will continue to work remotely permanently and others will operate on a hybrid model.
PwC became the first of the big accounting firms to allow its client services staff (40,000 employees) to work remotely permanently. Those who choose to work in a lower-cost area will see their pay decrease.
How many employees want to return to the office?
Which is better – working from home or working from the office?
There is much to be said for both ways to work, but a solution more in the middle is ideal.
As companies analyze ways to bring workers back to the office, flexible office brand Industrious has recommended a 30% model. This entails surveying employees every 30 days and bringing in 30% of workers.
This model enables companies to gradually transition from home to hybrid, and enables employees to benefit from both remote and in-office time.
Industrious argues that “the office we return to should be less like a classroom with neatly lined rows of desks and more like a student center — a magnet of social activity, connection, and collaboration.”
This type of workplace can better support remote and in-person employees by allowing for worker interactions to be actively managed.
Employers face a conflict
On one hand, employers want to look after their employees’ health and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. But they’re also motivated by financial incentives to justify expensive office rents and have their employees physically able to attend meetings and discussions, or just to be able to monitor their working time.
Putting pressure on employees to return to the office might be creating more anxiety.
56% of respondents in a survey reported that their employers hadn’t asked for their opinions about return-to-work policies and procedures.
This breakdown in communication between employees and employers could create anxiety for those employees who don’t want or aren’t yet ready to return to the physical workplace.
Hybrid workspaces offer a solution
For workers who are happier at home and for those who may be eager to resume the daily commute to the 9-5, hybrid and flexible workspaces may be the best options.
A hybrid workspace keeps all of the benefits of the office, while also reducing the feeling of isolation for those who suffer from it, as well as creating a sense of routine while also creating a space for workers to collaborate.
Mark Dixon, founder and CEO of International Workplace Group, said some people function better in a place that’s strictly intended for work.
“Some people can work from home, and they’re good and really disciplined. Others do fare much better in an office. Maybe at home there are too many interruptions. Personally, I like to go to an office because if I don’t, I’ll work day and night. Being able to leave the office is an important mental break,” Dixon told the BBC.
Within a hybrid work model and/or in a coworking space, employees who need peace and quiet to focus or who thrive in an office setting can be given the choice to work where and when they’re most productive.
What will happen to people’s work schedules as the pandemic lifts?
The vast majority of employers have actually not yet communicated any plans for the post-pandemic workplace, but it’s been made clear that workers greatly value flexibility.
More than half (54%) of employees surveyed from around the world would consider leaving their job post-pandemic if they are not afforded some form of flexibility in where and when they work.
Despite the overwhelming recognition of the importance of flexible working, an EY survey revealed that 35% of employer respondents want all of their employees to return to the office full-time post-pandemic.
Return-to-office plans have been named “The Great Wait.” As of late August, 66% of organizations are delaying office reopenings due to COVID variants. It’s unclear whether working full-time from the office will ever be the norm again, but most workers don’t want it to be.
What would be best for most office workers (and what’s most likely to happen for many of them) is something between old-school office work and digital nomadism. Most companies are still deciding exactly what their post-pandemic workspaces will look like.