Back to Work…But Not Back to the Old Grindstone
By Alan Resnick
Part I: THE STREETS ARE ABOUT TO GET MORE CONGESTED
As the number of vaccinated adults increases and as states reduce or eliminate their Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings, more and more Americans either have or will soon be returning to the office. Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ended remote work for 80,000 municipal employees. And an April 5 article in The New York Times reported that the consulting firm PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers) will be reopening one office in each of its major cities in May.
No doubt the nation’s dry cleaners are ecstatic. There is less enthusiasm among workers, however. Citrix Systems, a Florida-based software company, recently published a survey of 7,250 employees across 12 countries on the topic of post-pandemic work schedules. Fifty-two percent of respondents indicated that they want a hybrid model where they can choose to work remotely or from the office each day. And 16% of those surveyed reported they have no interest in returning to the office and would prefer a permanently remote role.
The reasons for people’s reluctance to return to the office on a full-time basis are varied and complex. Some are concerned about their personal health and safety. A February survey conducted by Wakefield Research of 1,000 adults employed part- or full-time found that a majority feared their employers would not adequately protect their health. And 62% of respondents wanted their companies to require workers to get vaccinated before allowing them back into the office.
Other employees have enjoyed a greater work-life balance as a result of working remotely. The absence of commuting has left more time for family, chores around the house, exercise and even hobbies. And many working parents have needed to be home with school-age children whose schools have not reopened or have only done so partially. This situation may change dramatically now that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine for use in children ages 12–15..
Then there are folks who simply prefer working at home to being in the office. There’s no need for makeup or a special wardrobe unless participating in a Zoom meeting. It’s often easier to focus and be productive, plus it allows for control over one’s work schedule.
But there are also people who cannot wait to get back to their offices. Perhaps they’ve reached their limit on family togetherness. The distractions that frustrated them in the office have been replaced by distractions from noisy kids or barking dogs. Working while sitting cross-legged on a futon while trying to balance a laptop computer on your knees is not as comfortable as sitting in an ergonomically designed chair behind a desk. The distinction between home and family life may have blurred if not disappeared completely. And, of course, there is the isolation and loneliness that comes with not having been able to interact with peers, direct reports or clients on a face-to-face basis.
Companies are of different mindsets with respect to the work schedules they plan to implement in the coming months. At one extreme are companies like Netflix, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan. The CEOs of those three organizations have indicated that they want their employees to return to their offices as soon as is practically possible. In a March 15 article in The Wall Street Journal, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon stated, “I think there will be a large portion who permanently work in the office. There will be some hybrids, where you spend two days or two weeks at home and two weeks in the office. It will reduce the need for commercial real estate, but there are huge weaknesses to the Zoom world.”
“I mean most of us learn by an apprenticeship system, by seeing mistakes, going [on] trips, how to handle a client, how do you handle the problem,” he continued. “It’s hard to inculcate culture and character and all those things. It’s very hard to build and develop a deeper relationship on Zoom.”
At the other extreme are companies like Twitter. According to a March 19 Forbes article, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has informed his employees that they may work remotely “forever.” And Spotify has announced a “Work from Wherever” program that will allow employees to “work from wherever they do their best thinking and creating.”
The Forbes article went on to state that: “The prevailing corporate consensus is consolidating around a flexible hybrid system, which has been championed by Google CEO Sundar Pichai. This entails offering employees an option or a combination of remote and in-office work.” One example is Ford Motor, which in March announced that 30,000 white-collar office workers can “continue to work from home and have flexible hours approved by their managers.” Kiersten Robinson, Ford’s Chief People and Employee Experiences Officer, expects that these workers will primarily come into the office for meetings and group projects.
Part II: THE VIEW FROM MY HOME OFFICE
Over the course of my career, I’ve experienced all three of these models. I began my professional life as an industrial psychologist in corporate human resources with a Fortune 250 manufacturer of medical and hospital supplies. It was a traditional office job and unless we were out on the road visiting one of our facilities, we were expected to be in the office each day, even if we had no meetings. It provided lots of interpersonal interaction, powerful feelings of teamwork and the ability to brainstorm and problem solve with others. But there were an awful lot of daily distractions and interruptions (“your door is open so you must not be busy”) and time wasted in needless and poorly run meetings.
I then moved onto a consulting job with a small firm headquartered in Maryland. I ran the Chicago office. (In the spirit of total transparency, I was the Chicago office.) I flew to Maryland just a couple of times a year for staff meetings. Otherwise, my contact with the home office was via phone or email. The role provided me great autonomy and freedom. However, I never really felt part of the larger organization. Staff meetings were awkward for me. Projects were discussed that I knew nothing about, decisions had been made without any input from me, and I wasn’t able to participate in the inside jokes that went around the table. I truly felt like an outsider in my own company.
For the last five years, I’ve worked part-time in a hybrid model. And it is absolutely perfect for me at this point in my life. I only go into the office when I have an assessment to conduct. All my scheduling, report writing, and billing is done from home. My contact with my supervisor is minimal and happens through email or telephone. I can’t say that I feel part of the department in which I work or for that matter a part of the larger organization, but that’s not important to me now after working professionally for 40 years. My priorities at this point are staying busy and having time for hobbies.
My own experience with these three models of work leads me to conclude that younger workers who choose to limit their time in the office through either a hybrid or totally remote work schedule are placing themselves at a distinct career disadvantage. Younger employees need direction, guidance and mentoring, all of which are best done on a face-to-face basis. Working remotely makes developing professional and personal relationships with peers, bosses and clients very difficult. Simply stated, most people, if given the choice, would prefer to get up from their desk and pop into the adjoining office or work station to ask a question or request feedback rather than email, telephone or Zoom with a peer.
Then there is the matter of organizational politics and the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Having worked in a large corporation for 15 years, I’ve seen the importance of “face time” and am a firm believer in Woody Allen’s famous quote of “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”
The results from a study in the July, 2020 issue of the Harvard Business Review indicate that there are a large percentage of managers who believe that just because someone is physically at their desk, they are performing well. Thirty-eight percent of the managers surveyed felt that remote workers usually performed worse than their counterparts who work in the office. Similarly, 41% of the managers expressed skepticism over remote workers’ ability to stay motivated over the long term.
I used to work with someone who told me she made it a point at least twice a week to be either the first one in the office or the last one out the door, in the hopes that our boss would notice. And he did, commenting occasionally to us nine-to-fivers, "Boy, Cindy really got here early this morning." I'm guessing that I'm not the only one who has witnessed such blatant attempts at suck-uppery.
Part III: DUST OFF YOUR OLD ROUTINE
Whether you are salivating at the prospect of heading back to your desk or dreading that email that will specify your return date to the office, you will not simply be walking in and picking up where you left off. And it’s going to take some time to adjust to how things have changed. At a minimum, you will likely have to adapt to new health and safety precautions such as having your temperature taken, wearing a mask, having greater space between desks, or adhering to markers on the floor indicating where to socially distance if there is a line at the coffee station. Here are some other things worth considering for when the big day comes:
First, prepare in advance. Start getting ready for your return to the office at least a week in advance. If you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve given your snooze alarm a pet name, break up with that device gently and go back to your former sleep schedule. Get reacquainted with your dry cleaner. And you may want to try on your work duds and see if you need a tailor or a new wardrobe--an American Psychological Association poll conducted in late February of this year found that 61% of adults surveyed reported undesirable weight changes.
Second, your social skills may be rusty. Social skills, like any other type of skill, atrophy when they are not used. The combination of working from home and ordering groceries, clothes and meals online has dramatically reduced the amount of time we have spent in face-to-face conversation, especially for people who live by themselves. Don’t be surprised or frustrated if it takes some time to get back into the rhythm and flow of office banter and asking questions of others.
Third, pack your patience and flexibility. It’s very likely the health and safety protocols that you experience when you return to work will be modified over time. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your company doesn’t know what it’s doing, but rather that things are being adjusted based on new information.
Fourth, cut others some slack. Try to remember that your peers, direct reports and boss all are in the process of managing their own transitions. They’re all going to need some empathy and understanding.
Finally, cut yourself some slack. It’s okay and perfectly normal to be anxious. We’ve all been through a lot these last 15 months and it’s going to continue for a while longer. As you return to the new world of work, pay attention to how you are feeling and, most importantly, talk about it with other people. Chances are that your peers or boss are feeling the same way. And if opening up to someone in your department leaves you feeling queasy, talk with family, friends or a mental health professional. But let that anxiety out of the bottle.
Good luck and don’t forget your Employee ID.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.