Returning to the Office: Four F’s to Facilitate Re-Entry
Updated: May 19
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
Some people here in Australia and around the world are heading back into the office. If this is you, today I will discuss four F’s to consider (none of which involve swearing).
I’m going to take for granted that if you are responsible for other people, you’ve taken all the steps necessary to make it safe from a physical health perspective for people to return, such as providing hand sanitiser, discussing commuting options, and setting up the space and facilities for social distancing. More details on those practical steps are below in “resources”.
My focus today is on some of the mental aspects of returning to the office.
Fear and other feelings
Returning to the office is likely to involve some fear. People will quite naturally be worried about being exposed to infection from others; after all, we’ve had months of warnings about the need to be wary of people and shared spaces! People might also be anxious about the future, and what the economic repercussions of the pandemic mean for their industry and their job prospects.
Some returning workers might even feel some anger towards their employer or manager for expecting them to come back to the office, especially if they feel this exposes them to health risks.
And it would be quite natural, too, to experience a sense of loss. When people return to the office, it means they are likely to be giving some things up that they have come to value whilst working at home. This might be more freedom during the day about their work schedule, more time with family, or, in my case, listening to the native birds from my garden office.
A finally, some people might be dreading a huge backlog of tasks that it hasn’t been possible to do from home.
Whatever your feelings, it is important to recognise what is going on for you. Warding off your feelings, or ignoring them, tends to be an unhelpful coping strategy . It is usually much better to share your feelings with others, and, if it helps, re-appraise them or take active steps to address the issue.
For example, if you are worried about social distancing measures during commuting, you could investigate other possible ways you might get to work, or negotiate with your boss to be able to travel in during quieter times, and/or make sure you’re fully up-to-date on the appropriate precautionary measures.
Whenever change occurs, we experience emotional reactions to that change, and this is entirely normal.
If you are a boss, avoid the temptation to simply label people’s emotional reactions as “resistance” and to assume the reactions are “irrational” . Instead, approach the change from the perspective of your employee – talk to them and understand their viewpoint. You will usually find what initially appeared irrational to you makes sense when you take the time to see the world from another person’s perspective. Focus your efforts on supporting people back into the workplace, and this includes acknowledging and accepting as legitimate their emotional responses, and being empathic.
Fantasies and reverse culture shock
In contrast to the above, you might be feeling excited about returning to the office because of the chance to connect with people ‘properly’ or because you are looking forward to getting back into some of the work it’s not been possible to do at home. If this is you, I hope these expectations are met!
But be warned….
Returning to the office or “getting back to normal” might have some parallels with an ex-pat returning to their country of origin. Research shows that repatriation, or coming back into your own country, can be very difficult.
Indeed, strangely, returning home can be a more difficult adjustment than settling into a new country . For people who go back to their home countries, nearly 40% leave again within three years, very often because of difficulties in repatriation [4, 5].
What is going on with this reverse culture shock? Sometimes it is because, since you’ve been overseas, you’ve changed, yet your friends and family have not . Sometimes it’s because when you’ve been away you idealize your home country and glamorize what you left behind, which means your expectations about home are unrealistic . Sometimes adjustment is difficult because you assume it will be easy because you its ‘your culture’ - what is there to adjust to, after all you are returning ‘home,’ are you not? And sometimes your home place has changed whilst you’ve been away, in unexpected ways. All this means that people’s feelings on return can take them by surprise.
I predict that some of us might experience similar “reverse culture shock” issues when we return to the work office. We expect that we’re returning ‘back to the normal’ situation, but, in fact, we are different, and the ‘normal’ is not quite how we remembered it. I believe we’re going to need to invest just about as much time adjusting to the office as we did when setting up to work from home.
If you’re a boss, this means - just as it has been necessary for companies to learn that repatriated employees need supporting when we return home - as your staff return back to the office, you will need to support your staff, and help them adjust back to the new situation.
Flexibility and preserving what we’ve learnt
Most of us have learned a lot about being flexible these past months, and it makes sense to preserve some of this flexibility in the months ahead.
First, things could change. There might be new waves of COVID cases, and hence a need for another lock down. In the end, we simply don’t know what is going to happen, so we need to be ready to return home if needed.
Second, and just as important, being flexible has benefits. It would be a shame to revert totally back to usual and throw out the valuable learnings we have had as remote workers. In fact, research shows that telecommuting has some small but overall beneficial effects on outcomes like job satisfaction, role stress, and job performance (especially if the worker has had autonomy and positive relationships with one’s boss) . Other research shows that –for people who spend some time in the office and some time at home – that people’s ability to concentrate is higher, and their need for recovery is lower, on home days than on office day .
Yet other studies show that collaboration is easier at work, and that people who spend 100% of their time working remotely are lonelier . So, to the extent its feasible given the type of work people do, having some in-office days, and some out-of-office days, might be a great way to get the best of both worlds.
Given the feelings of trepidation that some people might have about returning to the office, and the likely need for more readjustment than expected, I recommend arranging some enjoyable activities to bring people together when they return.
Maybe sharing favourite working from home tik-toks, or bringing in cakes? Even just sitting around and casually chatting without being in front of screen might be rather wonderful…
If you’re heading back to the office soon, best wishes for your re-entry.
About logistics of setting up the office:
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3. Adler, N.J., Re-Entry: Managing Cross-Cultural Transitions. Group & Organization Studies, 1981. 6(3): p. 341-356.
4. Grant, L., That overseas job could derail your career, in Fortune. 1997: New York.
5. O’Boyle, T., Grappling with the expatriate issue. The Wall Street Journal, 1989. 11: p. B1.
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