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What you need to know to get people back to work in the office

The founder of Advanced Workplace Associates notes that people are simply not going to throw away their improved quality of life due to the demand or recommendations from employers and politicians.

What you need to know to get people back to work in the office
[Photo: Prostock-Studio/iStock]

Over a year ago, at the start of the pandemic, I wrote a piece called “The brain’s journey to the new post-coronavirus normal.” In it I predicted that once people had been working from home for many months, avoiding the commute, learning new digital skills, and developing new habits, that many would not wish to return to the pre-pandemic grind of commuting every day to an office in the center of a city. The article was based on an understanding of how the brain works.

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Sixteen months in, those predictions appear to be coming true. Having tasted the good (and the bad) aspects of working from home, many are seeking to work at home for at least three days a week, permanently. 

Initially, employees were thrown into a model of extreme home working to protect themselves and their loved ones from the risk of ill health from COVID-19, but having worked in this way for many months, new skills and new habits have formed, changing the lens on the old way of working (which now looks increasingly odd). Many 5 day-a-week commuters were spending well over 8-10 hours a week traveling back and forth to and from their city center offices. People are now asking themselves: “Did I really get up in the middle of the night to commute to an office in the middle of a city?”

In the short term, of course, many individuals (even those that have been double vaxxed,) are reticent to get onto a busy train or subway to go to the office for fear of catching COVID. It’s clear that even if you’ve had two jabs, you can still catch COVID and have a pretty unpleasant few weeks with the risk of longer-term side effects. While statistically, COVID is unlikely to kill you, it can have long-term consequences. For many, the fear factor is still there, and their brains are telling them to stay at home and not take the risk.  

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For others, while there is still a lingering fear of transmission, the thing that’s keeping them working at home is their preference for this way of working. They are often saving hundreds of dollars a month on commuting costs, which for someone on an average salary amounts to a nearly 20% raise. There’s also a reduction in wear and tear and a sense that they are doing the right thing for the planet. Commuting and offices generate tons of carbon each year.   

Because of this, messages from governments and organizations to encourage people to return to the old way of working are falling on deaf ears. People are simply not going to throw away their improved quality of life due to the demand or recommendations from employers and politicians. The brain says no.

Risk vs reward

Employees will however attend an office and overcome their perceived risks of infection if the value they perceive from such a visit is high. For example, if a Business Development Manager perceives that there would be a high value from a face-to-face meeting with a prospective client, from which they and the company would benefit, that would likely be a high enough potential reward to overcome the perceived risk to health. Or if a team wanted to get together to work and socialize for the first time in 16 months, that might cut it too. If it’s just about coming to work within the confines of an office to do most of what can be done at home on email or Zoom just to satisfy senior leadership’s thirst for ‘control’ over (apparently) untrustworthy employees, you can forget it. 

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As an industry professional with many decades of experience driving change management and workforce transformation for some of the world’s largest organizations, I do believe that face-to-face-in-the-same-place interaction has high value depending on the nature of your work. Due to extensive industry research, we know that social cohesion is a critical foundation for effective teamwork and that face-to-face socialization has huge value in providing the socially cohesive foundations for hybrid working. The question now facing organizations is how do we get people to attend the office? 

The first element is understanding the human brain and how it perceives risk versus reward.  The perceived value of attendance must outweigh the perceived risk to the health and mental wellbeing of the employee. Of course, everyone is different, and the risk of ill health is higher for those over 50 and with underlying health issues.

In addition to this, people have different levels of sensitivity to risk and different anxiety levels as a consequence. Finding strategies to lower the perceived risks is a strategic starting point. This might include allowing travel outside peak periods when public transport is less heavily used or providing parking to allow people to travel to work by car. It might mean providing video walk-throughs to show how the workplace is being managed to limit transmission or creating special events so that people can have their first experience and then perhaps become more confident consequently.

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But then there’s the employer’s side of the equation, the value of physical attendance. Organizations need to elevate the aspects of attendance that working in the same space bring, and their value to the employee and team while being realistic about how often this needs to happen.

Employers need to consider developing “change back” change management programs to get employees comfortable with a new hybrid model that delivers better outcomes for all involved.


Andrew Mawson is the founder and managing director of Advanced Workplace Associates.

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