It all started with the pandemic making us drag our work cabins into our homes. At first, we allowed our cosy blankets to shield us from it for temporary reprieve, but little did we know about the not-so-temporary nature of this lifestyle. It was not too many months before the sunshine that beamed through the curtain on a lazy Sunday morning, turned over to become our perpetual table lamp.
Over the past year, there has been a drastic lifestyle change for most of us. From struggling every morning to reach work timely, to spending more time on our beds than we ever have, to dreading waking up to the same four walls, we’ve seen it all even when we were not ready to. We were not ready to get the precious family time we got, but we were also not ready to face the social isolation; we were not ready for the sudden freedom, but we were also not ready for the regular burnouts; we were not ready to put a much-awaited pause to the exhausting travel, but we were most definitely not ready for the endless zoom calls. But with that said and done, given the drop in the Covid-19 cases and a rise in the vaccinations, we have now arrived at a turn where we can begin restoring a version of our old ways to consider returning to office, except that turn looks like a crossroads for most of us.
While there may have been multiple problems posed by the sudden WFH culture including exhaustion, isolation, and the lack of proper work space, for which returning to work seems like the logical next step, there was also a level of embracing of the same culture given the luxury of comfort, freedom and work-life balance that was brought with it. So how does one proceed while balancing the two conditions? The answer lies in the mindful addressal of the problems at hand.
We need to acknowledge the possibility of returning to work being a must for certain industries owing to the requirement of their jobs, and also for organisations that have witnessed a serious drop in their levels of productivity post the WFH culture. But one can’t turn a blind eye to the enormous list of challenges ranging from the virus scare causing hygiene apprehensions of returning to a public environment, to the sudden replacement of home comfort and freedom with office professionalism and supervision, to the additional obstacles including transportation and domestic pressures. To get to the root of other problems, we need to get a glimpse of the social psychological aspect of those problems. First, WFH was a cultural shock for most, and it took months for people to wrap their heads around it. Given the dynamic nature of the present times, people don’t want to muster up the courage to return to work just to find out the incoming of another wave pushing them back into their homes, as the idea of that is representative of more shocks. To avoid the back and forth of changing environments with no guarantee of permanency, people may tend to resort to self-guarding measures and accept the present that they have become habituated to. Second, while returning to work may seem equivalent to getting back to old times, it is not. Our procedural memory develops over time when repeated actions are carried out, and that leads to the formation of heuristics, which are the mental shortcuts we access while executing habituated actions. These actions do not require conscious awareness. However, to adapt to the changing world, one needs to adhere to the new measures and that implies the remapping of older heuristics that people might have associated with their ‘office’, demanding conscious awareness, and more cognitive load.
As a first step in the direction of mindful resolution of the problems, we need to identify the teams/individuals who ‘need’ to come back to work. This step has a few prerequisites. First, the acceptance of differential treatment instead of imposed uniformity. Today, generalised solutions may not do justice to different problems, even at group levels. While it is essential for managers to take this into account, it is equally important to educate employees on this in order to avoid any interpretation of biases. This takes us to the next prerequisite of backing any argument put forth by logic and data in order to convince employees about the decisions being taken, avoid conflicts, and maintain harmony in the organisation. This demands not just talking but also executing, for example, reassuring employees of their safety by making logistic changes to ensure physical distancing.
As a next step, we need to wake up to realise the importance of collective decision-making in an organisation, rather than the autonomous imposition of decisions. Now, this does not have to imply hundreds of people gathered in a single room to come to a single decision, but just the need to have regular feedback and input sessions. To sum up, the major role lies in the two-way adjustment, from the employees’ and employers’ ends. There needs to be transparency throughout: the employees need to be communicative about their concerns and the employers need to come up with actionable insights towards those; the employers’ need to empathise towards employee issues and suggest solutions towards mandatory decisions and the employees need to empathize with managers who are handling not just the employee transition but also struggling with their own; trust needs to be invested to enable the time and space for everyone to settle in. The collaborative working can also enable solutions like training employees on readjusting their last days’ WFH routine in accordance with their ‘back to office’ routines, with the employers relaxing the first few ‘back to work’ days for employees to smoothen out the transition, balancing the traditional norms with the more flexible ones, and so on.
There are more creative ways that an organisation can come together and brainstorm such as introducing activities like ‘find a friend at the workplace to confide in’ to cater to the emotional trauma lingering on for the past few months, sending out inspirational messages to the teams to create unity and a sense of belongingness, coming up with activities to enhance trust and patience, onboarding a professional therapist, and finding more ways like the happyness assessment by happyness.me to listen to employees.
Those buildings are not the only things the pandemic filled an unexpected vacuum in, but the fact that we are able to discuss its undoing means we stood the test of time and that’s half the battle won.