The pandemic and post-pandemic era has shifted the way we work and our attitudes to work. Whilst these changes will not be fully understood without the benefit of time, it is important to reflect in real time on the most recent transition: that of returning to the office.

The last 2 years has been a series of non-stop transitions, and the ‘return to the office’ is perhaps the latest one being experienced as individuals and organisations try to find a way to navigate a new ‘modus operandi’.

This ‘Return’ has been a gradual work-in-progress for many in the past 12 months, with several false starts as Covid continued to disrupt. It seems however that for most organisations employees have returned to the office in some shape or form in the first half of 2022.

So what does this mean for our health and well-being?

Several studies in 2021 tested employer and employee attitudes to how people would wish to work post-pandemic. Unsurprisingly it was a mixed picture with differing views emerging amongst employee groups as well the ‘organisation’ and employees.

On the one hand, the picture was encouraging.  Ben Willmott, Head of Public Policy at the CIPD, heralded the post pandemic world as a successful new era with “more employers now looking at how to embed hybrid and other flexible working arrangements into their organisation in the long term.”

On the other hand, sensational headlines suggested some of the major tech firms such as Apple, Google & Microsoft as well as some Investment banks were mandating returns on a ‘full time’ basis. Alarmingly, there were also reports of organisations penalising those who continue to choose to work at home by reducing pay.

What were the key themes of the studies?

I have collated a few key themes that I believe are likely to be significant issues when we consider how this topic might be impacting on well-being at work:

A gap between the views regarding office-based working of those in leadership roles and employees

  • 96% of employees want flexibility when they work and 76%  where they work. Only 17% of employees want to return to the office every day compared to 44% of executives (Survey by Slack, 2021)
  • 25% of employers planned to ask employees to return 3 days a week, and only 14% said they would offer complete flexibility (Ellis Whittam).

Assumptions that employees working in the office full time pre-pandemic, will resume that mode of working

  • Of 448 employers, 33% said that they expected staff who previously worked full time in the workplace prior to the pandemic to return every day post-pandemic (source: Ellis Whittam 2021).
  • A YouGov poll found that one in five (19 per cent) businesses would not allow any remote working after restrictions were lifted (down from 35 per cent before the pandemic).

A lack of consultation with employees over the ‘return’ and a feeling of a loss of control by employees

  • Of those planning to introduce hybrid working, only two thirds of employers had consulted their workforce in relation to the patterns that they would like to work. (Ellis Whittam)
  • 66% of executives say that they were designing return to work policies with full transparency to their employees, compared to only 42% of employees noting this transparency (Slack).

A ‘return’ that is much too soon

  • A YouGov survey of 1,061 business leaders found 24 per cent would allow all their workers to work from home at least one day a week once the last of the coronavirus restrictions had been lifted, expecting them to be back in the office 4 days a week.
  • A survey by McKinsey highlighted employee concerns about childcare issues, busy commutes and health issues.
  • Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, encouraged managers to act with caution when returning to the office, warning against a “pendulum swing” between full home working and a permanent return to office working.

So how is this playing out in terms of well-being at work?

Of course, there will be employees who have welcomed the return to the office with open arms. For those who struggled with well-being and loneliness issues due to working at home in the first place this has been a huge and welcome relief. And we know that there were many, when allowed, who have been going into the office by preference for well over 12 months.   McKinsey found 37% of employees reported positive impacts on mental health on their return.

However it is those who haven’t chosen to return or been able to return ‘on their terms’ that is much more of a concern. According to McKinsey, one out of every three employees surveyed said their return to the workplace had a negative impact on their mental health, citing feelings of anxiety, depression, or general distress.

This is worrying at a time when we are already acutely aware of the mental health crisis currently being faced. The same study indicated that 40% of younger workers would leave rather than be forced to work full time in the office.

Organisations should rightly be worried about these issues in terms of caring for their workforces and not to mention the knock-on impact on productivity, retention and engagement. Research from Slack also highlighted that minority groups such as women and ethnic minorities were also likely to be adversely impacted by the return to the office.

So how can employers continue to navigate this in the best possible way for the well-being of employees?

These past few months have been a perfect way to test the model. Many of our clients, anecdotally, do seem to be offering a level of choice in at least which days employees can be in the office. Many are adopting the hybrid model – where teams can design their own days in the office versus at home. And what is working now, does need to be constantly reviewed.

Policies that have been designed and implemented should now be reviewed in full transparency and in collaboration with employees.

As Simon Blake, CEO of Mental Health England continued; “let’s not enforce rigid boundaries and instead of thinking forever, take a whole-organisation, fluid approach to workplace wellbeing.”

Let’s not assume it’s all working just fine but instead create an ongoing dialogue between managers and teams about what can work. We need to stay fluid and nimble. If this is done well, genuine flexibility is a key part of an organisation’s mental health and well-being strategy.

Rather than making decisions based on assumptions or the view of the minority, this is a true chance to create employment environments that take full account of the diverse nature of teams and workforces and empower them to design their own work and well-being strategies. This will have far-reaching benefits in terms of positive career management for all.

Kate Mansfield, Programme Director, CCS

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