Return to the Office: Making the Switch

Despite the burdens of working from home during the COVID pandemic, it’s only human to feel a mixture of fear, dread, and perhaps hopefulness about the return to a near-normal office routine. How can you make the transition a smooth one?

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

The back-to-the-office movement has started in a big way.

The share of the U.S. workforce telecommuting fell to 10% in March — less than half the 22.7% a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage will shrink even more as major employers such as Chevron, Meta, Microsoft, and others mandate in-office work.

How does one adjust to such a sweeping change? Experts say it’s best to start by acknowledging your feelings about returning to the office, whether part time or full time. Do a self check-in.

“Consider the positive aspects and the challenges ahead when returning to the office,” said Elora Voyles, a Ph.D. in industrial organizational psychology who works as a people scientist at Seattle-based TINYpulse, a Limeade company that specializes in surveying and listening to employees at client companies.

It might be worthwhile to make a list of positives and negatives with an office return.

Recognize that working in the same space as others can be emotionally exhausting after you’ve spent two years working in solitude or consumed with home-duty responsibilities, Dr. Voyles said. “You feel that, once back in the office, you must be ‘always on’ and never show that you need a break,” she said.

Stay open to these kinds of feelings that concern or even frighten you, Dr. Voyles said. And try to set a routine that includes time to recharge.

One idea to stay in control is to plan the night before your top two or three tasks for the next morning, barring emergencies, and wait until you’ve done those tasks before checking email.

“As much as you have the power to [do so], space out in-person meetings. After one in-person meeting, sit quietly for five minutes before returning to another in-person meeting. When possible, take a short walk. We need these times to reflect and to process.”

– Elora Voyles, Ph.D., people scientist, TINYpulse

Enlist a Mentor or an Ally

“Once you feel your check-in is complete, enlist a mentor, ally, or manager to clarify the work expectations you’re returning to,” Dr. Voyles said.

“If there’s no explicit conversation, that opens up possible miscommunication,” she said. “So have a clear conversation with your manager.”

That’s even more important for women; women of color; and those who identify as nonbinary, LGBTQA+, or transsexual, experts say.

Chantalle Couba, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant in Charlotte, North Carolina, says a key strategy is to make a short list of the best listeners at your company or organization, regardless of their titles or status. “Who can you tell your story to safely?” Couba said. “How do you tell your story safely?”

You might choose to speak at a group forum or set up a one-on-one meeting with the best listener about the challenges you face returning to the office. By speaking out, you can enlighten others about your role as a caregiver at home or your unique concerns.

Credit: Richard Israel Photography

“You should recognize and discuss every experience you have as an employee where bias may be present. Likely, it’s unconscious bias. But sharp advisors and executives look at all of those touch points.”

– Chantalle Couba, diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant

“You have the right to scan the equity policies of the company,” Couba said. “If they are not clear or seem to be light, ask in the appropriate way for someone to talk through that and share that with you.”

“I would ask, ‘How frequently are the policies reviewed for inclusion?’” she said. “It would be helpful to say, ‘It seems we’re missing having conversations about what inclusion means.’”

Set Limits and Boundaries

Another key to-do is to enlist support so you can balance your outside obligations, including family, and maintain flexibility, Dr. Voyles said.

That may mean making a not-to-do list. “We are not, as humans, set up to work eight hours a day focusing on tasks,” she said. “The remote work in many ways has been less taxing. We had more autonomy, even with simple things like getting a drink of water or taking a ‘bio’ break when we needed to.”

Once back in the office, it’s about prioritizing and holding out against sliding into overscheduling.

“As much as you have the power to [do so], space out in-person meetings,” Dr. Voyles said. “After one in-person meeting, sit quietly for five minutes before returning to another in-person meeting. When possible, take a short walk. We need these times to reflect and to process.”

And while headlines tell us that workers have the upper hand during today’s tight labor market, beware that your manager may be unable or unwilling to be your best advocate, Dr. Voyles said. After all, middle managers have been pressured as never before to handle ever-changing issues with employees struggling to cope with COVID pressures.

So, find another ally if necessary, Dr. Voyles said. And stand your ground. If you need help with mothballed technology or work accommodations, speak up.

In fact, research indicates that the men in the office might be the first to insist that their needs be met. That’s because employed men are far more likely than employed women to say they are considering quitting their jobs because their companies (50% of men versus 30% of women) or their managers (44% of men versus 29% of women) have not cared about their concerns during the pandemic, according to a poll conducted jointly by CNBC and global gender equality firm Catalyst.¹

Employed men are also more likely than employed women to say they’re going to ask their employers for a raise and/or promotion (45% versus 28%), the poll revealed.

Much of the angst about returning to the office stems from employees’ hesitancy to disrupt their new way of living — one that includes greater flexibility and time with family, said Lauren Pasquarella Daley, Ph.D., vice president of Women and the Future of Work for Catalyst.

“People figured out [how to work from home] and got to a new place in their lives,” said Dr. Pasquarella Daley.

“To now be required to set up yet another infrastructure, which could mean more costs, a commute that complicates things, and relocating after having moved during COVID to be closer to family, people are asking, ‘What’s the point?’” she said.

“There has to be a reason that makes sense to go back to the office,” Dr. Pasquarella Daley said.

Some companies are hiring human resources or other types of managers to handle these issues.

Couba urges employees to set up their own boards of advisors — one internal and the other external — that link to your industry space and take advantage of today’s post-COVID environment to talk about your identity and unique needs.

“You should go to people in your company and say, ‘I want us to begin to answer these questions for other people like me and in similar life circumstances who want to work here every day,’” Couba said.

“People figured out [how to work from home] and got to a new place in their lives. To now be required to set up yet another infrastructure, which could mean more costs, a commute that complicates things, and relocating after having moved during COVID to be closer to family, people are asking, ‘What’s the point?’”

– Lauren Pasquarella Daley, Ph.D., vice president, Women and the Future of Work, Catalyst

Just as companies spend millions scrutinizing how they touch customers — such as what happens before, during, and after a sale, the so-called customer experience life cycle — sharp companies recognize there’s an employee experience life cycle, Couba said.

“You should recognize and discuss every experience you have as an employee where bias may be present. Likely, it’s unconscious bias,” she said. “But sharp advisors and executives look at all of those touch points.”

Are you coming in when no one else is there? How often are you on camera during Zoom calls, or required to be on camera compared with your peers?

What are the company’s health care practices and offerings around transgender or LGBTQA+ health?

“If you don’t see these sensitivities or any evidence of employee networks or affinity group conversations, lean into those,” Couba said.

“Do you see evidence and commitment to philanthropic causes, workplace surveys, employee resource groups that focus on LGBTQA or your specific needs?” she asked. “I would be the person to go to leadership and ask why this is a gap.”

“If you want to stay at this workplace, you’re going to have to start a change in culture,” Couba said. “Even if it’s finding an advocate — another leader you can trust and who can help you advocate on an issue.”

Purpose that makes sense

Company leaders should prioritize providing employees with greater choice, making sure they get visibility and access to information even when they aren’t at the office, and support employees when and where they need it, said Pasquarella Daley.

“The office shouldn’t just be the site for Zoom calls all day,” she said. “It should be a place of purpose — purpose that makes sense.”

That’s a tall order for corporate America. After all, our psyches are geared toward the more, the busier, the more exhausted, the better because it shows we’re tough, hard-charging performers.

Dr. Voyles coined the phrase “The Zoom Ceiling” to describe a trend she saw of women, people of color, and those with disabilities potentially risking being passed up for promotion because they’re not as visible.

“It’s the ‘out of sight/out of mind’ dilemma,” she said. “Those disparities can increase with remote work.”

“For those who have lost two years, they need to advocate for themselves,” Dr. Voyles said. “Managing remote workers requires a lot of trust in your team.

“It requires that managers and remote workers be more proactive and intentional,” she said. “They have to plan to send that email, to reach out, and to keep that regular communication.”

One important theme of the post-COVID reinvention is that, if something at work was a persistent problem prior to the pandemic, if left unchecked, it will get worse, Dr. Voyles said.

“That’s true of gender disparity,” she said.

Dr. Voyles recommends that women schedule standing meetings with their managers. “That way, it’s not, ‘Hey, excuse me, can I talk to you?’” she said. “It’s, ‘This is our planned time to meet.’”

Have a purpose for each meeting, and keep it as short as possible, perhaps 30 minutes. If you cringe at the thought of bragging about your accomplishments during those meetings, think of it as sharing facts. Have a direct conversation about your goals and what it will take to meet your goals, as well as the skills you need to develop to get a promotion.

Another important skill involves staying connected on a personal level with co-workers. “Wish people a happy birthday,” Dr. Voyles said. “Before or after a Zoom meeting, ask people about their hobbies or plans for the weekend. You won’t feel like you’re bothering them. It’s all about having that rapport.”

Toward creating solutions for today’s office environment, Dr. Voyles recommends the following:

  • Speak up in virtual meetings and, when possible, keep your camera on. “That can contribute to your being seen as a leader.”
  • Be clear about your available work times. “With different time zones, you don’t want a manager to think you’re dropping the ball. I put my status on my Teams meetings schedule. If I’m not available, I’ll respond when I join again.”
  • Share praise with your team. “Recognition tends to be a two-way street. Praising and working well with others builds team spirit.”

Couba looks at the situation in a historical framework. “I’m an optimist,” she said. “We can point now and say, ‘We have a black female Supreme Court justice. This is a monumental time of change, like desegregation of schools, for creating more space for human and civil rights inside of organizations.’”

Endnote
1. (2021). “The Great Work/Life Divide: How Employee Desire for Flexibility and Employer Concern Is Driving the Future of Work.” CNBC and Catalyst report, Oct. 12.

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