Hybrid work and reluctance to return

A feature of many of my recent conversations about hybrid work and the return to workplaces is reluctance. A recurring employee question arising: why should I come into the office? There are many reasons an employee might want or need to go into the office, and equally as many reasons why their employer might require it. For more thoughts on this subject, I recommend this blog post by Neil Usher.

At the heart of this emerging reluctance seems to be four not entirely unrelated elements:

  1. Pandemic related reluctance. The fear of infection, especially for those who have to undertake crowded public transport commutes, further compounded by the uncertainty of the new variant. Over time, this particular form of reluctance may reduce – or depending on the future prevalence of Covid it may not. Return to the office for these employees equals risk.
  2. Remote preference reluctance. For some employees, working from home is their overwhelming preference and they would rather not return to the office at all, or if it cannot be entirely avoided, would prefer to attend for the minimum amount of possible time. For them, return feels unnecessary.
  3. Productivity reluctance. Some employees are finding the return to the office is causing a personal productivity problem. From research during the pandemic we know that many employees feel at least if more productive (one particular survey putting it at more than 80%) when working from home compared to the office. For these employees, the distractions of the office and other people equals reduced effectiveness.
  4. Can’t see the point reluctance. During the pandemic we found new ways to work – unfortunately many of these still centre around the synchronous meeting, only now it is online rather than face to face. We are now taking these ways of working back into a physical workspace, leading to the (fair) challenge – why am I going into the office to spend time on Zoom? For many employees, this is the worst of both worlds. A commute and a day of online meetings.

As employers, we have a job to do if we want a hybrid future – and this includes working through employee reluctance both on a psychological and practical level.

A few thoughts from me…..

  • We need to give people a good reason to come into the office. Part of this is helping people to recognise that being in the physical workspace isn’t just about them, but about the wider organisation and team experience. We go into the office for ourselves, but also for others. To connect. To support new starters with learning and assimilation. To create serendipity. To contribute to the energy of the work space. We need to answer the question, ‘what’s in it for me’, as well as helping people to recognise its about what’s in it for everyone else, too. And if we can’t think of a good answer* to the ‘why’ question, well that needs some reflection too.
  • We need to think about meetings. 18 months on and I am still hearing so many stories of people spending hours and hours on Zoom or Teams. This was a problem during the pandemic from a productivity and wellbeing point of view – now it is a barrier to hybrid success in itself. Because there is no point in going into a physical work place to undertake virtual work. To sit next to someone else doing their own online meetings. Pointless, and impractical too. Getting serious about asynchronous work is long overdue. Time to replace that meeting with something less fatiguing instead.
  • Linked to the previous point, we also need to think about our work spaces. We need to create spaces in which people can undertake forms of work that are different to the way we worked pre-Covid. Shared spaces where people can come together to collaborate or just work next to each other, and spaces where people can do those online meetings – because they are here to stay.
  • We need to help people think about their productivity differently. I’ve written about this on an earlier post. Some people will adapt naturally to hybrid, others might need some coaching or support. Managers need to be equipped to have this conversation with their teams. When undertaking hybrid work we need to be much more intentional about what work we do where – and when.
  • Learning from what is working and what is not. The shift to hybrid was always going to be an experiment, and there was always going to be a need to adapt en route. Now many organisations are a few months into their hybrid shift its time to start the conversation. What is good about coming into the office? What needs to change to make it more useful and effective? How is the office being used?

As I write this post the implications of the new variant remain unknown. Set against a backdrop of nearly two years of pandemic life, and its repeated opening up and locking down again, we can also hear the fear and approach this with empathy. Not all reluctance is rooted in opposition but genuine concern for self and family.

This early period of hybrid implementation was always going to be messy as we still try and live and work with Covid. We are still not experiencing anything like true hybrid, any more than we experienced true remote when working from home during the pandemic. This is all part of the learning – but learn we must. If we do not adapt then we may end up with undesirable outcomes – at one end of the scale empty, energy-less offices or at the other, mandated full time return.