Two years ago, it seemed like the lockdown was the hard part. Now it turns out that going back to the office is much harder because life has changed completely for so many people in between.
In short, the last two years have been bruising and those returning to the office are bringing the collateral damage with them. This is being reflected in changed priorities around work and friction between colleagues who are finding it difficult to reconnect and find their motivation mojo.
"For every person that wants to work from home there's one that wants to be in the office because they get their energy from being around their colleagues. Unsurprisingly, they're finding it frustrating that some of these colleagues don't want to return, ever, and this is having an impact on working relationships," says Tom Hennessy, founder of Alive Coaching, whose team is seeing the fallout at first hand when facilitating in-company discussions about employees' pandemic experience and the future shape of work.
“We’re coming upon a multiplicity of personal and organisational problems and things are a long way off settling down,” Hennessy adds. “Being together used to be the norm. Now it’s not and people have lost the desire and the skill to connect, not least because they’re exhausted by what they’ve been through.”
Hennessy says managers are struggling because they feel they’re losing control due to continued remote working and not getting buy-in from their staff, while employees are struggling because going back means losing autonomy and self-determination and not being able to do things like pick their kids up from school any more.
Hennessy adds that, at a corporate level, organisations are also dealing with what the pandemic has cost them over and above the damage to the bottom line. For example, the major disruption to organisational culture caused by employees doing individual deals to get the working hours that fit in with their post-pandemic priorities. With talent at a premium, companies have just rolled over and agreed to what people want.
A second example is the hit to tacit learning whereby employees absorb information about their job and their organisation by just being together.
“There is now a clear deficit in tacit learning that has to be made up because those who have joined organisations over the last two years, and have worked remotely since, are way behind on acquiring the everyday knowledge they would have picked automatically in the office,” Hennessy says.
The idea behind the workshops facilitated by Hennessy and his fellow life and career coaches is to provide employees with a safe space in which to reflect on what happened to them personally and professionally during the pandemic. It’s also an opportunity to get back in sync with their colleagues and understand their experiences.
From there the discussion moves on to the team and its vision for the future and what working patterns will support this. However, this is proving difficult to nail in practice because people want different things.
“Previously, management was all hands-on with everything and everyone in clear sight. With people not together for over two years, there’s been a breakdown of trust and we’re seeing a real disconnect between managers/organisations and the rank and file, with both sides feeling the other side should be doing more,” Hennessy says.
“The really smart organisations are doing engagement sessions to help people communicate openly and decide how they’re going to work together from now on. But for every one smart organisation, there are 99 that are not and they’re breaking apart. This is showing up in people resigning, taking sick leave and being less committed.
“We’re also picking up a huge sense that employees are feeling disenfranchised and completely and utterly frustrated with work and less engaged with their careers than they have ever been in their lives.”
Hennessy says two things can help leaders get the show back on the road. One is taking time to think. The other is getting on the same page as those they lead. “Everyone is asking them to make decisions and they don’t have all the answers at their fingertips. They need breathing space to think. Secondly, they need to take time to listen because employee engagement is such a big problem.”
One development Hennessy flags as being of major concern is the long hours people are working since returning to the office.
“An unexpected upside of the pandemic was improved productivity and we have clients that saw double-digit increases when people were working from home,” he says. “That’s dropped off significantly because people are commuting, there are more interruptions in an office environment, they go out for lunch or stop to shoot the breeze with people they haven’t seen for two years.
“They’re not getting as much done and because their homes are already set up as offices, they go back to work in the evenings. These long days are going to burn employees out even more.
“Organisations and leaders are being torn in multiple directions and this is making the working environment very difficult,” he adds. “The lockdown was an upheaval, but the change was fast and clear.
“We’re now in another period of great change and it’s neither. But it will get better. There’s a lot of working through still to be done but I’d expect a sense of calm to have returned to the workplace by early in the new year.”