After months of being isolated in remote working arrangements, a return to the office could be a welcome change. But the honeymoon might be over quickly as employees adjust to the traditional nine-to-five workweek and loss of flexibility. In fact, managers should expect arguments, conflict, and irrational behavior, says Matt Casey, cofounder of the management software company DoThings and author of The Management Delusion: What if we’re doing it all wrong?
“When we were working remotely, most of us may say we worked until 5 p.m.—but probably not,” he says. “Getting back into a morning routine and then having to stay all day will be a big adjustment after working in a flexible way. If you have to go back and do a full day, you’re going to be tired by end of it.”
Fatigue is one factor, but so is dealing with a variety of personalities. “People have spent a year not having to talk to coworkers all day,” adds Casey. “All of sudden, they’ll be forced back into situations dealing with others with whom they may have previously clashed.”
Our coping mechanisms for getting along with people we find irritating are out of practice. When we’re around people every day, we build up a tolerance and have ways to overlook things that irritate us, says Casey.
“When you’re used to it, you may not have as many emotional responses,” he says. “But now that we’re completely out of practice, I expect people to feel and react to perceived slights more often. You may be dragged into arguments more often because you’ve forgotten your mechanisms for dealing with childish people.”
The impact on managers
Managers may struggle with the return to office more than most, says Casey. “We have to be on top of our game most of the time,” he says. “All of a sudden there will be a bunch of employees around to manage.”
Casey says he was shocked at how different it was to manage a remote workforce. “Good management is a little incidental,” he explains. “It happens organically through casual coaching in micro interactions throughout the day. When you see something, you say something and that’s the end of that. When employees are remote, you have to make a formal plan to see how people are behaving instead of noticing it. The human interaction becomes mechanical and more like a production line.”
Recognize that office drama is probably going to happen and be ready to react and support it as best you can.
Hybrid situations could make things worse
Organizations that adopt hybrid work arrangements create an additional challenge for managers.
“With fully remote or fully in the office, you can envision the support employees need,” he says. “With a hybrid arrangement, you could easily get the worst of both worlds unless it’s well structured.”
If employees are allowed to choose which days to work from the office, some may base their schedules on their coworkers. If you’re going to go hybrid, Casey recommends having set days for everyone, such as working from the office Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and from home Thursday and Friday. This way, everyone knows what to expect and you can avoid the potential drama of miscommunications.
And if you want people to come back to the office, say so. “Giving staff the choice of working from home and then passive-aggressively hinting that you want them to come in won’t end well,” says Casey.
Making a plan
The best thing managers can do as employees return to the office is not to make any big changes. “Take a couple of months to observe before changing anything,” says Casey. “A lot has changed in the last year, and we don’t know what post-pandemic work will look like.”
Also, be mindful of your emotions. If you’re having a reaction to a situation or person in the office, recognize that it could be an adjustment period and not a reflection of what the new norm will be.
“When everyone comes back, the best thing to do is plan to make a plan,” says Casey. “Watch what happens between employees. See where there are problems. Then determine what you need to fix. Try and cut everyone a lot of slack for the first few weeks, yourself included, but also have clear rules that don’t tolerate unprofessional behavior.”