This week, I have been planning the eventual return to our office at some unknown point in the future, risk assessing and trying to figure out social distancing in an open plan office. As part of this process, I have also been thinking a lot about the impact of returning to office life and what that might mean for our employees and their mental Wellbeing. And as it’s Mental Health Awareness week, I thought I would post a few thoughts.
Over the past week or so, we have been talking to our employees about their thoughts on going back into the office and getting a sense of how they’re feeling about it. Empathising and recognising the challenges and obstacles that they may face returning to the office – be it childcare, caring for elderly relatives, their own health concerns and their anxiety about the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Interestingly, the majority seem keen to stay at home, but not because of a fear of Covid-19 Mostly they are just enjoying working from home.
This got me thinking about the positives of working from home and the potential negative impact of going back to the office. In many cases, working from home provides a greater sense of autonomy – the freedom to make ones own choices or to self-govern. This may apply to seemingly small or insignificant things like the choice of clothing – I’m certainly enjoying my more casual attire and comfy shoes! Or for some, being interrupted less is having a significant impact on the flow of work, resulting in greater productivity and a stronger sense of achievement. Autonomy is a key component of employee engagement and motivation so it stands to reason that for those that feel a greater sense of freedom, they won’t want to easily ‘hand it back’.
When thinking about returning to the office, we need to consider the impact of taking this ‘new found freedom’ away. What will this mean? In all likelihood, many offices will need to continue some element of working from home for the foreseeable future in order to facilitate social distancing and perhaps this will be enough to tick the ongoing autonomy box for now.
But what will happen when, at some point, (in a galaxy far far away) we eventually go back to the office full time?
We will need to consider this because for the employee, it may feel as though something valuable is being taken away, thereby damaging motivation, trust, engagement and wellbeing. Organisations will need to think creatively and flexibly about how this could be managed but its importance should not be underestimated. Those who have been furloughed will also need time to adjust to re-entering not just the office but working life again – particularly if they have been furloughed for several months.
It is also worth pointing out that this sense of greater autonomy may not apply to everyone. Some people are really struggling working from home. Some have to manage home schooling their children while still fitting in a full time job. Extroverts, who gain energy from others, are no doubt finding isolation really tough, whereas their introvert counterparts may be enjoying the isolation/solitude. The neuro-diverse amongst us may be finding working from home anxiety inducing because going into work everyday provides necessary routine, structure and balance.
We know that the world of work will look different in the future. And planning against a backdrop of such uncertainty is a significant challenge for all businesses. We’re talking to our people to see what they might need and want and will factor that into our thinking over the coming weeks.
It is essential to provide a safe working environment for our employees but it’s not all about hand sanitizer stations, anti-bac wipes and social distancing measures. We must not forget the importance of providing a psychologically safe environment, which considers the mental wellbeing of our people too.
Author: Shelley Jacobs
Published: 20th May 2020