The Return To The Office Has Begun. What Next?

A six-minute meeting drove Portia Twidt to quit her job.

She’d taken the position as a research compliance specialist in February, enticed by promises of remote work. Then came the prodding to go into the office. Meeting invites piled up.

The final straw came a few weeks ago: the request for an in-person gathering, scheduled for all of 360 seconds. Twidt got dressed, dropped her two kids at daycare, drove to the office, had the brief chat and decided she was done.

Employees are quitting rather than giving up working from home

Gradually, glacially perhaps, we are returning to something like normal.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on one management overnighter (In a hotel! With people! And flipcharts!) and had two weekends away. It felt odd at first, but reassuringly familiar. After so much disruption it’s quite remarkable how quickly we can return to old norms and habits.

At our away day we all remarked how disorientating it was on arrival – seeing colleagues we’d not seen face to face for 17 months, and meeting several colleagues for the very first time other than through a screen. But just a few hours later, over dinner and in the bar, how quickly we forgot about metre plus distancing and our year of fearing any other human contact.

At a theme park a couple of days later, thrill seekers all compliantly wore their masks on coasters despite the fact the sheer velocity removed them from our faces. Within about two hours no-one was wearing a mask. Even the most well designed behavioural nudges fail in the face of social norms that have been in place for decades. You scream on rollercoasters, you want the wind on your face, not half your face.

My point here is not to be cavalier about safety – I’ve followed the rules as much as anyone. But for all the talk of a new normal, it’s the old normal we’ve missed and the old normal to which we’ll shortly return.

Which brings us to the return of the office.

As I write Apple has announced it wants employees to return to offices by September. Workers must return to their desks for at least three days a week, chief executive Tim Cook wrote in a memo, saying “I know I’m not alone in missing the hum of activity, the energy, creativity and collaboration of our in-person meetings and the sense of community we’ve all built.” Apple aren’t alone, with Google also seemingly becoming much more cautious about a remote first working environment.

When even the CEO of Zoom says he’s got Zoom fatigue , and other executives say the perils of remote work make a return to the office an imperative – you know that change is in the air. It’s over.

The flavour of the month is hybrid working. The best of both. A few days in the office, a few days out. Everybody who is anybody is predicting the future of work is hybrid, seemingly without any actual evidence or experience.

In all likelihood, you’re going back to the office. As Daniel Davis has pointed out – existing as a hybrid is a hard act to pull off. As he says ‘the cultures of remote work and in-person work are so different that it takes a cultural transformation to bring them together. Unfortunately, this type of cultural finesse isn’t a strength for many companies’.

On the other hand a survey of 1,000 adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. The generational difference is clear: among millennials and Gen Z, that figure is 49%, according to the poll on behalf of Bloomberg News.

The new drive to get people back into offices is clashing with some workers who’ve fully embraced remote work. As Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou write ‘there’s a notion that some bosses, particularly those of a generation less familiar to remote work, are eager to regain tight control of their minions.’

Not that this is just about dinosaur bosses – seemingly some employees want to have their cake and eat it too. People have been enjoying unprecedented flexibility to work when and how they want – and yet the trade union Prospect is calling for the UK government to give employees a legally binding “right to disconnect”. This would ban bosses from “routinely emailing or calling” outside set working hours. What are ‘set working hours’ and how can this realistically sit alongside a hybrid, or remote work policy?

Let’s also spare a thought for the people who never left the old normal. The healthcare workers, the supermarket staff, the delivery drivers. The only thing that changed for them is that their bosses spent even more time in meetings.

The truth is, we don’t know what happens next – there are too many variables here. Variables we haven’t yet begun to consider.

There are people who can’t wait to get back out there, meet people, to socialise and to travel. There are many who are more cautious. And there are those who have been deeply scared and scarred by the Covid experience.

Up to one in five of us are believed to have developed a “compulsive and disproportionate” fear of Covid, which is likely to stay in place for some time. Warnings about the dangers of Covid have heightened the problem, and mixed messages about the level of danger have made it worse, says Marcantonio Spada, a Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health at London’s South Bank University, who co-authored a report on the recently identified condition Covid Anxiety Syndrome (CAS). CAS is characterised by a fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking.

Our Post Covid world of work has to integrate some very different personas into the workplace. Some of our colleagues will not be the same people they were in January 2020.

What we do know is this:

  • Some people are raring to get back, or to get others back, to the office.
  • There’s a new strain of highly ‘office resistant’ employees who would quit rather than return.
  • There’s a group of people who have a fear of re-entry back into society.
  • And there’s the people for whom nothing has changed , those who worked on the frontline during a global pandemic putting themselves at risk whilst the middle classes moaned about Zoom Fatigue.

What happens next? No-one knows. However managers now have to learn to deal not just with different personality types and skill sets – but completely different mindsets about what work is and where it should happen.

Nobody can predict the future — but everybody can choose their approach to it.

Published by Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

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