Returning to office life

An Alberta School of Business professor offers insight into the transition back to the workplace.

When the world went into lockdown a year and a half ago, and people moved into a new method of operation, it happened so quickly there wasn’t much time to think about it.

Now, with many organizations planning a return to the workplace, both employers and employees have time to consider the many impacts of change.

And though some of us are ready and excited to return to the office, there are just as many apprehensive and nervous about the situation.

“I think there’s a lot of apprehension in regard to what all this is going to mean and look like,” said Rick Brick, associate executive professor in the department of strategy, entrepreneurship and management at the Alberta School of Business.

“There was a lot of forgiveness and learning from all parties as we moved along, and now it’s understandable that people are wondering about what’s next.”

As more businesses and organizations begin bringing employees back to the office, we spoke to Brick — who has thirty years of experience working in the field of human resources — for his perspective

No small issues

It’ll unquestionably be a challenge heading back to the workplace after working from the comfort of your own home for so long, and there are many things to consider, said Brick.

You may have to reestablish parking and plan your commute. Or maybe you need to buy a new work-appropriate wardrobe after wearing more comfortable clothes for over a year.

This could also mean a change to family life and routines. If you have young children, there are arrangements for childcare; if you have pets, you’ll have to consider their day too.

For many, the thought of returning to society and relearning how to have conversations and connect with people can be crippling.

Others just aren’t comfortable returning to an in-person environment and working with coworkers who may or may not be vaccinated.

So to help with the transition back to the office, Brick said it’s crucial for employers and employees to be open about any feelings and anxieties as we move through the process.

“There’s no one way to feel about everything that’s happening,” he said.

“After so long working in the safety and comfort of your own home, it’ll take time to be comfortable working in this new normal.”

Communication is key

Employers should be communicating with their employees about returning to the workplace early and often, said Brick.

“What employers don’t want is to give the employees the impression that they’re doing this to them; it should be a collaborative process.”

Employees should be given ample advanced notice, not only to prepare mentally and emotionally but also to allow time to organize their home and personal lives. Businesses should also be as specific as possible about timeframes, which goes a long way to alleviating some of the uncertainty.

Considering the fluid nature of the pandemic, it’s challenging to have any permanent policies in place, but employers can be as transparent as possible about any updates and changes to the organization’s regulations and culture, as frequently as they occur.

And while Brick is hopeful businesses have already started the dialogue, employees should be encouraged to be proactive in speaking up, which can only happen if organizations have created an environment where employees feel comfortable vocalizing all concerns and anxieties.

Provide a safe space

Employees may be feeling anxious about working indoors with colleagues, commuting to the office with strangers or attending board meetings and events. There will be disagreements about the correct way to greet a client or friend — a hug, handshake or physical distancing — and apprehension about working closely with people who may not be vaccinated (an average employer should be thinking that 30 per cent of their workforce is not going to have the vaccination, said Brick.)

Brick said organizations should be concerned about what’s affecting their employees and should be taking their best interest into account while being clear about the expectation moving forward.

“It’s a tough time for everyone and employees need to feel comfortable voicing their worries, and employers need to be transparent about the steps they’re taking to address those issues,” said Brick.

Reestablishing organizational culture

One of the main areas of focus for human resource departments once employees begin the return to the office will be to re-establish the office culture.

“It’s a significant contributing factor to an employee’s productivity level and workplace happiness, and good organizations will invest the time and energy into building it back up,” said Brick.

Businesses will be trying to figure out how to boost morale and build up excitement around the return with things like mini-retreats and professional development days and being open about the decision-making process.

But things won’t be the same as before, and employers will likely be dealing with an increased rate of attrition (The number of employees who leave is five per cent in a pre-pandemic year. It’ll be north of that this year, said Brick.).

People may no longer be willing to put up with the commute, for example, or work closely with people with whom they may not get along. Or maybe their circumstances over the last eighteen months have changed.

“It’s impossible for the work environment to be the same as it was before people started to work from home, but employers have the opportunity to build a new and exciting culture moving forward,” said Brick.

Establishing a new work model

If there’s one thing learned over the past year and a half is that productivity is different person-to-person, and many businesses are now considering some variation of a work-from-home policy. But that comes with its own set of challenges, said Brick, since, at any given point in time, there’s 10 to 20 per cent of staff that employers do not want working from home.

“During the pandemic, businesses didn’t need to address those issues since it was a simple fact that most people had to work from home,” said Brick.

“Now, there are options.”

Management has to determine how best to address those issues, and it’s not straightforward. There will most likely be many changes as organizations figure out how to operate in a new working model, said Brick, and there’s no one way forward.

“What’s important is that the more voices that are speaking — managers, supervisors, employees — and the more communication that’s going out about it, the better off everybody will be as we figure out what this new working normal will be.”

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