By Matt Abbott
This past year has seen a recurring theme of adopting new norms and adapting to them. One of the most impactful and influential changes businesses were forced to make in the early days of the pandemic was the shift of many employees who worked in offices to working remotely from home. Now, a full year later, many of those same businesses and their employees are asking themselves the same question: “Is this ‘new normal’ of working remotely here to stay?”
While many people I spoke with at startups and Fortune 500 companies over the past year were originally ecstatic about the prospect of working remotely from the comfort of their own homes, some of the downfalls this shift in workplace operations has caused for their businesses and employees are now more clearly coming to light.
For instance, a lot of the people I have talked to mentioned that they aren’t hearing employees say they want to get back into their office. This is not inherently an apparent issue in itself, but it does raise questions regarding future issues that may arise — or are currently appearing — around the analytics of having their workforce distributed. I believe that it’s not only business owners who are hesitant to say they want their teams to return to the office, but that a larger number of employees than may otherwise let on are interested in getting back into the swings of office culture that came with their ‘traditional’ pre-COVID workplace environments.
One survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) states that, of over 1,000 people surveyed, an average of 75% are eager to return to the office. Of the top reasons listed why they wanted to return, 52% said socializing with their co-workers was one that impacted their decision, and 46% mentioned in-person collaboration as their reason. Now that COVID-19 vaccines are becoming more accessible and available to members of the general public, I would not at all be surprised to see a spike in the number of employees wanting to return to their workplace’s office.
Both socializing with co-workers and in-person collaboration are two vital aspects of any healthy business environment. Though some may argue they aren’t always necessary, the fact that these were the top two reasons listed by employees as to why they wished to return the office sheds light on another key aspect of remote work: the effects that prolonged remote work in near-isolation can have on our physical and mental health.
Another survey conducted last November by real estate firm JLL also found that, of 2,000 employees asked in 10 separate countries, 3 in 4 of them said they were looking forward to returning to the office. When asked why this statistic was so high, Cynthia Kantor, JLL’s Chief Product Officer, told CNBC that, “as we get further into the pandemic, the isolation and mental stress of working from home full-time is settling in.”
Let’s use remote interviewing as an example of this. For the past year, even some of the world’s leading businesses have been forced to conduct hiring interviews, even for key leadership positions, remotely by using phone calls, emails, and video conferencing as their primary means of communication and performing their job roles. This poses two key issues for new hires. There is the issue of unexpected stress that can arise when a sudden loss of internet connection occurs. If this happens to the interviewee, it could be viewed as unprofessional and even ultimately cost them the job. But for new hires at a company that has gone fully remote, another issue arises in that they haven’t had an opportunity to truly experience their company’s culture or the people they work with. The inability to communicate and interact with their new environment face-to-face can cause disruption to productivity, which only further perpetuates the detrimental effects of COVID-related stress on the new hire.
Many people have spent at least some portion of the last year focusing more on their health, be it through a meal-delivery service, a new at-home exercise routine, or even just working on their passion or a creative hobby. But think about all the time you have spent sitting slouched over your keyboard or desk during that time, too. Even something as seemingly insignificant as sitting slouched in our designated “work chair” for more than 30–60 minutes at a time can leave us with long-lasting physical pain.
For all the hours each day that we’ve spent sitting down and working at our computers, a good portion of that time pre-COVID was spent being (at least somewhat) relatively active in the office. Even things as simple as getting up to get coffee and refill the pot, walking from one end of the office to the other, or heading to lunch across the street with a co-worker help keep our bodies active throughout the day. Since last March, for many employees, all that time that would have otherwise been spent being even slightly active is now doing just the opposite, and the physical pain that inactivity causes only adds to the stress already felt as a result of the pandemic’s impact on our lives.
We also have to consider the stresses felt by the demographic of employees with families or young children. Not every parent who has worked from home over the past year has been fortunate to have a dedicated space to work, or be able to do their work in a quiet or undisturbed environment. Though many parents were also able to balance their family life with their job duties pre-COVID, the disruption brought by the pandemic has also inadvertently caused those two realms to bleed into one another. Suddenly, they are forced to perform the two jobs they have — as a parent and an employee — simultaneously, and manage the finer aspects of both at once. The stress and exasperation that this situation has on the parent as an individual likewise has an innate effect on their partner or spouse. As such, it’s not surprising to see a spike in the amount of relationships or marriages ending since the pandemic’s onset, when many businesses pivoted their employees to work from home.
I wouldn’t argue that it’s disagreeable to say the longer that the COVID-19 pandemic has gone on, the more people are beginning to feel the effects and stress of “COVID fatigue.”
While there fortunately is a vaccine for COVID in circulation, the only “cure” for the fatigue and stress the pandemic has caused will be an even newer normal that more closely resembles our life pre-COVID. Returning to the office may just be the spark that ignites it.