In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, our work environments changed significantly. By the summer of that year, 42 percent of the US workforce worked at home. Over in London, around 46 percent of employees reported working from home at some point in the year. However, as vaccination rates rise and the COVID cases have dropped in many major cities, employers are keen on getting workers back to an office setting. As a result, many employees are now asking themselves, am I ready to return to the office? 

For me, one of the few feel-good stories of the pandemic was about traffic. Where I live in Los Angeles, residents have always had to make an uneasy bargain. In exchange for near-perfect weather, we put up with perpetually-jammed roads. So when the pandemic hit and everyone stayed home, the streets got quiet, and what was once an hour-long car trip suddenly took 15 minutes. It was surreal but satisfying. And I know I'm not alone. Across the world, employees are asking themselves questions about returning to work, not least, 'am I willing to commute for over an hour to go to work?' 

The issue is that it's pretty hard to squeeze toothpaste back into the tube, isn't it? Once you've experienced a short journey, open roads, not riding the brakes, and gained two hours of your life back, it does make you wonder. You need to consider what has changed for you this past two years and decide what you prioritize and what you want to keep.

Returning to work: Is there flex in the company policy?

In this moment of reassessment and record unemployment, workers have more bargaining power, as they consider the impact that jobs have on the quality of their personal lives and weigh the choices whenever possible. And, we are starting to see a showdown. 

Randstad Risesmart’s recently launched worklife coaching report reveals that nearly 90 percent of employees would prefer to change roles in the next 12 months, with the employee-driven Great Resignation continuing apace.

According to Randstad’s new CEO, Sander van ‘t Noordende in a recent Bloomberg interview, “employees are more prepared to attach consequences to their unhappiness. They’re prepared to quit their job if they’re not happy.”

As a career development coach, I guide clients on all sides of the employment equation - from those with job stability, who have chosen to work with a coach to enhance their worklife wellbeing, to people in transition in the midst of a job search. In both these cases, the logistics of going back to a physical workplace is a hot topic. It starts with getting clarity on the employer’s return-to-work plan, and how much flexibility they are willing to accept.

In a trend report published by Microsoft in March 2022, 50 percent of leaders say their companies already require or plan to require full-time in-person work in the year ahead. This is a number at odds with the more than 70 percent of workers who are looking for a hybrid-remote office model, rather than returning to the office full-time. 

Most likely there will be a phased approach, in some cases mandates, but in the short-term, the hybrid model seems the most attractive for all. The lure of a flexible work schedule is not going away and is arguably adding more attrition to the market as employers try to dictate the terms of employment once more.

Identifying the cost/benefits of where you do your job

For many when the lockdown first began, working from home was a real shock to the system. But once we overcame the issues of sharing the internet and rooms with family members, a surprising awakening emerged. People began appreciating having more flexibility in their day, whether it was being home to prepare meals with their kids, sharing a walk with a loved one before work began, or taking care of life admin at better times. Family pets were ecstatic and reveled in the extra walks and constant companionship. 

As you weigh your readiness to return to work, consider the factors that mean the most to you for your worklife wellbeing. My clients suggested positives such as:

  • More flexibility to care for children, elders, pets
  • Variety of choice as to where to live, with the possibility of more-affordable housing
  • Spreading out chores and appointments throughout the week
  • No grueling commutes 
  • Health benefits to being able to take a walk or run more easily and at more convenient times and in sunshine
  • Casual Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday - plus less money spent on clothes you don’t wear out of a work scenario
  • Scheduling work to fit your needs professionally and personally

But there are concerns and negatives to be considered about working from home too. Specifically, remote workers fear that they’re missing out on opportunities for networking and visibility with leadership. People who are working from home also feel the pressure to log in more hours a day to validate their jobs.

Being physically separated from co-workers for an extended length of time can take a toll. As you assess the upside of remote work, take into account the benefits of on-site connection and a change of scenery. On a purely personal interaction level, these might include quicker response times from colleagues when they’re in closer proximity, fewer misunderstandings with team members, and more quality encounters with supervisors and direct reports. I can see benefits too when it comes to re-building tangible boundaries from the job with a clearer start/end to the workday, and the subconscious value of some dedicated physical time away from family members.

Is a return to the office a dealbreaker?

This past week, I coached a client who was interviewing for a job that would require him to be onsite full-time. He was happy to be back at the office, and the recruiter confided that this one fact alone would give him an advantage in the hiring process. If you find yourself in a similar situation, make your sentiments clear, as this might help get you the job. Just a day later, I talked to a single Dad who would have to walk away from his job if there was no flexibility about remote work, which is the case with many of the parents in my coaching practice. 

Most companies will have to reckon with the new reality of the desire of their employees for remote/hybrid work. Even traditionally adverse financial firms are coming around to this fact, so perhaps you can reach a compromise if you’re a competitive candidate for a new job or a solid performer already at work. But if there is no possibility for compromise, and you’re willing to walk away, try to bargain for some runway to prepare for the next steps. 

It’s the office, but not how we knew it

Rebecca Henderson, CEO of Randstad Global Businesses, recently said, “We’re not going back to what it was pre-pandemic. There are going to be limitations on how people will be getting together.” 

You need to know what your employer is planning as it is unlikely a ‘return to normal’ will be as you remember it. For example, I’ve seen some employers deploying rota systems so that offices are never as cramped as they once were. Meeting rooms have been condensed to smaller workspaces, and lunch areas and restrooms have changed too. 

When it comes to vaccination status, it varies from country to country what is permitted. Some employers are allowed to ask about vaccine status and others aren’t, but the trend is that you must show your status before returning to the office or interacting publicly on behalf of a firm. 

In Germany, unvaccinated employees without proof of recovery must take an approved test every workday in their free time and show the employer the negative certificate.  Workers in New York City who perform in-person work or interact with the public in the course of business must show proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccine.

Legal experts suggest that workers who refuse to comply with the new rules and can't work from home could face dismissal or have their pay withheld.

Prepare for all eventualities

In my own anecdotal survey of clients who are weighing their inclinations about a return to the office, the numbers of those wanting remote/hybrid work are in line with the 70 percent figure stated earlier. It’s really no contest. 

The past two years have seen the pendulum swing and employees do now have more say over their terms of employment. However, if you believe a return to the office is in your near future whether hybrid or remote, and that isn’t something you wish to do, you need to start working on improving your situation.

  1. Plan for the most critical logistics to fill any gaps in child and elder care. If necessary, get a dog walker in place (unless you can bring a pet to work)
  2. Allot enough time for any morning personal prep that might lapse with a commute on your agenda again - exercise is going to be critical now
  3. Download a meditation app or an audiobook for the commute - use your commute to nourish your soul
  4. Re-establish (or find!) your business casual wardrobe and relocate your iron - I say this as someone who now has a dedicated shelf for sweatpants
  5. Establish a new (old) routine, and give yourself time to prepare meals if you need to bring lunch to work - don’t fall back into bad habits
  6. Reset your boundaries when you return to the office. What time are you arriving/leaving? How often will you check email/slack? Which calls can you make an in-person meeting?
  7. Remember everyone has experienced the pandemic differently - prepare yourself for changes in dynamics and relationships once you’re back in the office

Similarly, if you really don’t wish to rejoin the office you need to plan your exit. I recently posted on this topic and why pursuing a career change is possible at any age. While you may have a preference for where you want to work, if your employer doesn’t offer it, there’s only one outcome. 

I wish you well with your return to the office. It will be interesting to watch how this all plays out.

wendy braitman, PCC.

career development coach

12 May 2022

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