Returning to the office: Four F’s to facilitate re-entry

Online discussion:
Centre for transformative work design

ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker

Discussion in a nutshell

This discussion presents the notion that returning to the workplace after the COVID-19 pandemic requires new considerations with a mental health focus. As the title suggests, the four F’s to consider are presented in written and video format:

  1. Fears and other feelings
    Feelings of returning to the office may likely include worry, anxiety, fear and even anger if they feel that their health status is being compromised. Loss may even be experienced by some workers, as they spend time away from people, pets and other comforts and freedoms that they have had
    available while working from home. Some may dread a backlog of tasks that may have built up and now need addressing.
  2. Fantasies and reverse culture shock
    This is in contrast to the negative feelings described above, and similar to the feelings commonly
    experienced by repatriated employees (expats) on their return to home land. Some employees may feel excited at the prospect of returning to the workplace and ‘getting back to normal’. The glamorised beliefs of how great it will be again and then recognising that expectations may have been unrealistic or that things may have changed, may lead to ‘reverse culture shock’ and range of associated negative feelings.
  3. Flexibility and preserving what we’ve learnt
    It is important to use what we have all learned through the COVID-19 pandemic. Things could change rapidly again, and so flexibility should continue to be encouraged. Additionally, flexibility has benefits. Beneficial effects of flexibility found in research include job satisfaction, role stress, and job performance, and working from home can improve workers’ ability to concentrate and reduce their need for recovery. Whilst working in the office provides improved collaborations, portions of continuing to work from home should be considered where possible.
  4. Fun
    Feelings of trepidation relating to returning to the workplace can be eased by arranging some enjoyable activities to bring people together when they return.

In summary the author notes that whenever change occurs, we experience emotional reactions to that change, and this is entirely normal. The advantage lies in how we recognise, try to understand and respond to these emotions by supporting employees as they return to the workplace and help them adjust back to the new situation.

Implications in workplaces

With multiple lockdowns of differing lengths in different states, many employees are experiencing a return to the workplace – or have another return to the workplace ahead of them.

Employers and employees need to be aware that a variety of emotions are likely to be experienced when returning to the workplace, and as much adjustment as moving to working from home should be made to reintegrate employees back into the workplace. Employers should focus efforts on supporting people back into the workplace, including acknowledgment, empathy and acceptance to legitimate employees’ emotional responses. Employers will find value in workplace relationships and productivity if they spend time finding solutions with employees.

Date published: May 2020

The author is the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.

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