Zahara is the Co-founder & Executive Director at Rite KnowledgeLabs. As the Chief Operating Officer (COO) she is responsible for providing operational leadership and ensuring service delivery excellence. Across diverse digital stakeholder communication and thought-leadership programs, she works closely with clients, anchoring key account relationships and ensuring the service delivery exceeds expectations right from planning to publishing. She has over 17 years of experience and has worked with several multinational and leading Indian organizations in various capacities pertaining to business communications, content publishing, e-learning, IT and training. She brings significant business, technology, BFSI and financial content publishing experience and has led engagements with customers across industry sectors.
It’s been a few months shy of two years since we discovered home as our first office. Now, here we are, being wooed back into our ‘real’ offices, though this time with a rider – flexibility. Of course, like most things fuelled by the pandemic, the rider offers never-before possibilities, is open to interpretation, and most of all, poised for evolution. And that, is reassuring. It took some time to adapt to the new normal of working from home. Similarly, it will take some strategic efforts to move employees out of the comfort zones they may have settled into and make working from the office enticing again.
Reason to be nervous
For a large set of employees across economies, the idea of returning to office is an anxious one, literally. McKinsey Consumer Health Insights found a direct correlation between employees returning to office and them experiencing a negative mental health impact. In fact, even those who were expecting to be back at their desks soon, already anticipated the same.
This is perhaps why, in cases where the ‘F’ word has been missing from the ‘return to office’ memos, employees are choosing to quit rather than compromise on feeling in control of their routine and environment. As many as 4 million professionals have quit their jobs within a year in the U.S. alone, as per official estimates. The trend isn’t too dissimilar in India – home to one of the most lopsided work-life balance cultures.
Fortunately, not all is lost. After months of working remotely, employees are keen to regain part of the pre-pandemic normalcy that the traditional office promises. A zero-distraction work environment, peer camaraderie and access to mentors and trainings are some of the top drivers. To ensure a comfortable transition, employers will need to redesign the office ethos to up the ante on these while addressing anxiety, stress and mental health-related challenges.
A culture of calm
Accordingly, a key component of this new post-pandemic office culture will need to be autonomy. Employees want to return to office in a staggered manner, and on their terms. They will need time to relocate if they have moved cities, learn and decide on their caregiving options or simply want to walk back when it “feels right”. More so, leaders will have to actively exhibit a sense of calm as they create a culture where team members don’t feel compelled to return ASAP.
Companies will also have to build a culture that is anti-stigma and pro-support when it comes to employee individuality. Whether someone chooses to work shorter hours or longer, talk about their mental health or prefer to keep it private, make work their life or let work be a part of their life – a culture that respects individual decisions will be a prerequisite to building an office environment where everyone feels as safe as home.
Feeling as connected with leaders and peers as one does to lunch buddies has been a corporate goal that’s never really succeeded. Remote work, of course, made it worse. However, cordial relations are key to a positive and vibrant work environment at the office – one that can make employees want to return after months of transactional audio and text-based conversations. Be it in person or virtually, it’s time to actively strive to sound human during office interactions. This can go a long way in creating stronger bonds at the office, which in turn can get employees to stop resenting Office 2.0 and maybe even embrace it.
It may seem tricky, but it can be simple. Trying to add a more human layer to your communication can appear inauthentic. Instead, just de-layer the formal. So, if you need to send out that midnight email, make sure to be courteous and mention why you’re doing so. If someone in the team or a client that the team has recently interacted with tests positive for COVID-19, don’t have HR send an email on that one. Send a personal ping while maintaining privacy.
Act on compassion
Compassionate leadership became the buzzword during the pandemic and it is here to stay. While emotional understanding and support were critical during remote work amid the pandemic, a return to office in the hybrid environment calls for more tangible acts of compassion.
For instance, being understanding of safe commute challenges and offering alternatives like hyper-local offices, office-arranged transport, green bike fleet or non-peak hour logins. This can drastically alter how employees view their relationship with leaders and companies despite the shift from 100% remote work. Similarly, responding to their emotional need for sanitized and smart-ventilated spaces, and investing in such infrastructure can effectively convey that you care about more than just their performance.
Ahead on the path of return
The return to office is inevitable – though in a new avatar. For some organizations, it is about productivity while for others, it is about upholding the collective identity. But for most employees, it is about taking things a notch higher than the home office can offer – more room for interacting, learning, performance, growth and even time off.
Organizations and senior management will have to chart out how the new office aligns to these needs and communicate them effectively before they can request employees to return. They will also have to guide leaders and managers – ambassadors of the office, especially in a hybrid environment – to become beacons of such new hope.
And once the new office comes alive again, chances are we’ll be glad for the cocoon away from bad network, self-made coffee, working weekends and showerless weekday mornings.