Several well-known magazines have done features lately on the subject of returning to the office and why some people are concerned or hesitant to do so. If you look at the top five reasons, there are things you’d expect to see, and one thing you might find odd (or at least I do).
In no particular order, (Most lists agree on the top five, just not the order):
- Fear of contamination/ catching Covid
- Disruption of new routines established during the pandemic
- Changes to the physical workspace (what do you mean my desk isn’t my desk anymore and we’re hoteling?)
- Going back to long commutes/the price of gas
These all seem reasonable enough. Here’s the one that got me:
- Having to interact in close quarters with teammates.
If you listened to all the anti-remote work voices, this was supposed to be the trump card. Sure, it’s convenient to work from home, and yeah, a lot of work can be done in isolation. But what about brainstorming, collaboration, and team building? A lot of people say that while you can work well that way, it’s not as effective, productive, or just plain fun as being together.
Why do people dread interacting with colleagues?
If you remember the “before times,” it’s not like the office was a Garden of Eden where each workday was an unbridled piece of Paradise. There were challenges with doing our jobs even pre-COVID:
- Many of us started working from home because we could accomplish tasks without being interrupted. Amy’s birthday means cake and a song in the break room. Terry won’t shut up about how his team did Sunday. You have the desk next to chatterbox Raj, and it’s hard to concentrate. Your boss can’t resist pulling people into the conference room for a quick meeting. Isolation and quiet had its perks.
- The last several years may have made existing tensions with coworkers worse. A large number of people are anecdotally reporting one of the reasons they dread going back to the office is that they have significant political or social differences with workers that existed before, but have gotten worse over time. You could ignore their bloviating before, but now they are more vocal and less tolerant than they were before we all went home, and you can’t just put them on mute like you can on a Zoom call. Also, your own tolerance for their ideas and ability to keep your mouth shut has deteriorated. You can’t just avoid Bob any more.
- Teams change over time, of course, but over the last nearly-three-years you may not have the same friendships and relationships you had before everyone got sent home. It won’t be the same as when you left.
- The routine of office hours often didn’t match people’s lives. Childcare, getting to the gym, and just working when your brain is at its best don’t necessarily fit an 8-5 (and the fact that it’s gone from 9-5 to 8 is telling in and of itself) schedule.
If being in proximity to our co-workers is the driving force behind returning to the office, we can’t ignore these issues that detract from the experience.
How to address concerns about interacting with colleagues
- Involve your people in the planning. What should remain the same as it was before Covid? What wasn’t working that can change? What is negotiable and what can’t be changed?
- Optimize time spent in the office together. If you have a room full of people, especially who don’t see each other every day, expect there to be a lot more chatter and a lot less concentration on tasks. When people are co-located is the time for short, intense meetings to address challenges and reach consensus. Putting your head down over your keyboard and pretending your teammates don’t exist can be (and probably is better) done somewhere else where you won’t be interrupted.
- Have your ear to the ground for tensions that might become big problems later on. Keep an ear and eye out for bullying or other behaviors that create unnecessary tension. While it’s impossible to limit all personal opinions and political discussion in the workplace, focusing on the work people have in common and acting in a respectful manner are performance expectations.
It’s kind of sad that the biggest advantage of working with others is also something people might dread. It’s all in the attitude. Focus on the benefits of being together and try as best you can to limit the negative experiences.
Changing we HAVE to work together to we GET to work together is a start.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.