For many workers, that back-to-office plan that’s loomed (and changed) for more than two years has finally materialised. Employees of all stripes are finding their way back to desks, even just a few days a week. But the transition has not been easy for everyone.
In many cases, lots of simple things that people were good at before the pandemic, from meal prep to face-to-face conversations and socialising with colleagues, are no longer second nature, because workers are out of practice. Plus, because of people’s differing attitudes to remote work, re-entering the open-plan offices that workers left behind in 2020 has been uplifting for some and jarring for others, or even a confusing mixture of the two.
Some people, after having complete control over their working environments at home, are more socially anxious and less tolerant of the irritations that come with being surrounded by colleagues. Others, meanwhile, might be so happy to be in an office with colleagues that they wind up breaching rules of social etiquette that used to be there.
Things will shake out, experts say, as we gradually get used to being in a formal professional environment again. And yet, it’s fair to acknowledge that ‘being in the office’ isn’t the same as it was before; the way many companies use offices has changed as remote and hybrid work become more entrenched. The purpose the office serves now – and the rules around our behaviours in it – are still evolving, meaning workers are set for a learning curve.
“It’s not quite as simple as just going back to the way things always were,” says UK-based organisational psychologist Gemma Roberts.
Working in personally curated home spaces has meant some rules of professionalism have gone out the window – and will have to be re-learned (Credit: Getty Images)
‘I find that quite exhausting’
As workers trudge back in – much to the chagrin of many – behaviours that once were automatic have atrophied.
Sam has been back at the office for three months now, but he still wakes up in a panic on office days with no clean clothes to wear. Like many workers, Sam got used to not needing freshly ironed outfits while working from home. “I mostly work in pyjamas,” he says. But that’s not possible on the one day a week he now travels into his Sydney office.
“I keep forgetting that I have a 90-minute commute, because I’m so used to work just starting at home when I feel like it,” he continues. “It feels like being a kid, re-learning how to be an adult.”
The shift from full-time remote working to a hybrid format is a required adjustment in the new way of knowledge-working – and for many, it’s been a clunky process. Many workers are finding it difficult to shake off the work-from-home habits they’ve developed that no longer belong in the office – things like taking client meetings in loungewear, stealing cheeky mid-afternoon naps or even pacing around the room to think through an idea.
On the upside, some of these habits will dissipate over time, because the office will force workers back into appropriate behaviour (in other words, a person will be less likely to pace around the office, since colleagues will likely stare).
Yet other behaviours will take a lot more intentional work, because they’re not just something people have stopped doing – like not wearing trousers – but rather they’re behaviours we’ve outright forgotten how to do. “It sounds really simple, but things like small talk,” says Roberts, “if that’s not something that’s totally natural to you, you’re going to have to start learning those skills again.”
For example, she explains many workers spend years – often unconsciously – learning interpersonal skills, so they can create relationships in the office and help career development. But after two years out of the game, they’re more than rusty.
I keep forgetting that I have a 90-minute commute, because I’m so used to work just starting at home when I feel like it. It feels like being a kid, re-learning how to be an adult – Sam
“You’d be surprised how many people I talk to are worried about going back to the office because of social anxiety,” says Roberts. “It was a massive learning curve, having to figure out how to build strong relationships virtually during lockdown,” she says. “And now I’m hearing from people there’s fear around actually seeing people face-to-face.”
Roberts herself has had a bit of trouble navigating in-person meetings. Zoom fatigue pushed her to get into the good habit of leaving a gap between video calls, but outside her home office it hasn’t been so easy. “I’ve often got things booked back-to-back,” she says, “and I find that quite exhausting.”
Boisterous and sensitive
People are out of practice on their own – but there’s another factor that’s affected workers’ ability to calibrate their office behaviour appropriately: the changing purpose of the office.
Workers used to go to offices to do all their work, both their heads-down solo tasks as well as their group work. But now, in-office days in a hybrid environment often have a new, highly specific purpose, which is to foster socialisation and collaboration.
As a result, some workers are finding their colleagues have lost the etiquette – and even decorum – required in an office setting. With a focus on socialisation, many colleagues are boisterous in ways they haven’t been in the past, leaving workers who still have to get individualised work done in inhospitable situations annoyed and frustrated, to say the least.
Many workers are finding colleagues are especially boisterous as they get together for social interaction – but people are also very sensitive to noise (Credit: Getty Images)
There's this need to connect on such a large level after being isolated for two or three years, so the office, for those who are going back to work, is really kind of seen as this place to finally connect and share ideas,” says Anna Shen, venture partner at VC firm Raiven Capital, who worked on a recent Future of Work report. “It's almost like they’re overcompensating for the time that they were not able to see each other face to face, and it does feel like they have forgotten basic manners and basic social norms.”
However, while it may be true that some colleagues are acting out of line in a socially driven office setting, the workers who are bothered by disruptions may also be more sensitive now than they were prior to office closures. Some experts say workers have adjusted so thoroughly to their remote environments, curated exactly how they want them, that even a baseline ‘normal’ amount of disruption may be difficult to take.
Jane Parry, director of Centre for Research on Work and Organisations at Southampton University, UK, agrees. “People’s tolerance for open-plan offices is going to be a lot less,” she says.
‘We can’t go straight back into the world’
Now that both workers and their colleagues have seen behaviours atrophy, what next?
Importantly, these are early strides in the return-to-office marathon. It’ll be a while until workers are back in stable routines that enable them to restore good habits and cultivate behaviours that are correctly calibrated to the new role of the office.
“We've had a lot of time where the world has been different,” says Roberts. “We can't go straight back into the world. We need to take our time with this, we need to start piecing things together to figure out what works for us as individuals, but also what works for the organisation.”
Positively, experts say the initial discomfort of the office won’t last forever – the pandemic showed how good we are at adapting. Parry explains, in her research, “managers said again, and again, that people were much more adaptable than they ever thought they would be. We don’t give them enough credit.”
The socially anxious will get reacquainted with working alongside other people, while the boisterous employees excited to see their friends will start to calm down, too. In parallel, what exactly we’re meant to be doing in the office will become clear; it will be different for each company, but firms and teams will gradually establish new rules of use and new rules of conduct in post-pandemic offices.
For now, the best thing for employees to do is to speak up, and explain to managers what’s getting in the way of your productivity, or what about an environment or routine isn’t working. “Managers need to have that information because no one's ever done this really complicated curation before,” says Parry, “so it’s going to be a lot of learning.”