The Return To Work Might Not Look As You'd Hoped

The Big Return to offices isn't a one-size-fits-all. Here's how to make peace with that.

After more than a year spent working from home, the coming months are likely to see thousands return to a physical workplace in some capacity. But for many, getting to grips with what the return to work will look like is hard.

When lockdown was first announced, shifting to a work from home model was an upheaval for lots of people – “it was uncomfortable and didn’t feel quite right,” Dr Teralyn Sell, a psychotherapist and brain health expert, tells HuffPost UK. As time went on, people started to see the benefits: extra time with family, no commute, home-cooked lunches, and avoiding the stress of office politics. But now, some are having to jump right back in again.

Dr Sell likens the whole ordeal to frogs in a pot of boiling water. “As frogs, we were pretty comfortable as the water slowly boiled over time,” says the therapist, referring to our working habits pre-Covid. “What we didn’t know was when we were set free out of the water, it felt really good. Now we are being asked to voluntarily jump back into an already boiling pot.”

The issue is, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the Big Return. People want different things. And what they want – and what their employer wants – may not always align. Some employees want a hybrid model, splitting their time between the office and home. Others want to work from home full-time, while some simply want to be in the office for good. And companies can’t please everyone.

So, what will office working look like after ‘unlockdown’? Professor Cary Cooper, a work psychologist from the University of Manchester and co-editor of Flexible Work, believes hybrid working is the future – and stats back this up.

Most (85%) business leaders expect to operate hybrid working after restrictions are lifted, according to a survey by TalkTalk, and 86% of office workers say a flexible working policy would be key to accepting a new job in the future.

The office is set to become a place where people go to attend important meetings or collaborate on tasks, while ticking off the rest of their to-do lists from home. The optimum time to spend in the office for both employers and employees seems to be two to three days a week.

But for every company sending out employee surveys to listen to their staff and plan a future of flexibility, there are a dozen others simply saying: it’s time to head back. And this is causing anxiety.

A survey of more than 2,000 people by intranet software company Oak Engage found 45% of those returning to work are experiencing anxiety. Two thirds said UK businesses should give workers the choice to work from home or in the office, with 41% saying it would improve mental health.

So, how can we make peace with the return to work and the fact it might not be what we’d hoped for?

Ask yourself the big three

Dr Sell suggests we need to ask ourselves three questions in order to move forward: what can we do to accept what’s happening now? What do we need to change? And what do we need to leave behind? Asking questions – and really interrogating your feelings about the return to work – can help you understand what needs to happen... including whether it’s time to find a new job.

“Perhaps you will be required to move back into an office space, but you don’t want to,” says Dr Sell. “It might be time to do that self-evaluation of accepting it, changing it or leaving it. Ask yourself, why don’t you want to go back? Don’t disregard those reasons, in doing so you are not validating your own emotions.

“Instead, recognise how your body feels, notice the thoughts you have and develop a strategy to either work from home or maybe find a new employment situation that you are more comfortable with.”

Some people might find they want to go back to the office but their employer wants them to stay home – the same questions still apply. “Ask yourself what wasn’t working for you in the office. Perhaps there are some changes to be made there as well,” she adds.

Talk to your boss

Communicating with your boss will be pretty instrumental these next few months, says Prof Cooper. Especially for those who are yet to return, as you have the opportunity to shape what it will look like. “The ideal situation is one in which line managers and HR work with each individual to find the best solution for them and the organisation and agree it,” says Prof Cooper.

If the situation doesn’t arise where you can fill in a survey on your return to work preferences, speak to your boss or HR about what would make you feel comfortable, or whether you could bring more flexibility to your working day seeing as you’ve shown the ability to work hard – and flexibly – this past year.

“The worst organisational response would be to mandate everybody has to come back to the physical office – as some notable investment bankers have demanded – or that they have to work remotely even though they have inappropriate space at home or have social or developmental needs to work from the office most days,” says Prof Cooper. “It’s all about developing a psychological contract between the individual employee and the organisation.”

The Oak Engage survey found a third of people reported if they had to go back to work permanently, they would look for other roles, while 23% indicated they would consider leaving or resigning.

If businesses want to keep talent, they’ll need to start listening.

Think about what you can control

Before you head back to work IRL, therapist and Counselling Directory member Beverley Hills recommends asking yourself action questions that begin with ‘what’ or ‘how’ rather than ‘why’, ‘who’ or ‘when’. So, instead of saying to yourself ’why can’t it be the same?, or ‘who will help me?’ – which Hills says are “disempowering” and places you in victim mode – try: ‘what do I need to do in order to make my own transition easier?’ or ‘how can I make this work for me?’

“You know you better than anyone else, therefore only you have the solution to your own problems,” she says. “The ‘what’ or ‘how’ can be incredibly motivational and allow us to take responsibility for ourselves.”

Hills says it’s important to manage expectations and come to an understanding that the old ways of living might have to change. It’s also about focusing on what you can now control.

If you’re concerned about the commute to work, for example, you could do a few dummy runs of your journey to see what conditions are like at certain times of day, she suggests. If it’s too much, talk to your manager to see if you could alter the hours you work so you’re coming in later or leaving earlier.

Similarly, if you’ve been told hybrid working is the future of your company, but you hate working from your sofa, it might be time to invest in a desk. Or, at least a few accessories that could making WFH a little more comfortable.

If you find yourself struggling with anxiety about the return to work – whatever that may look like – that’s your body telling you something. “Perhaps you might see a career counsellor or therapist to help you sort through those decisions,” says Dr Sell. “You might be glad that you did.”

Useful websites and helplines

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.

Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).

CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.

The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email help@themix.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.