Science-based ways of making return to the office easy

This article was originally published by CEO Magazine
By Ian Horswill

July 29, 2020

In many parts of the world, businesses are in the process of transitioning back to the office.However, Google will keep its 200,00 full-time and contract employees home until at least next July and Twitter has told workers they can keep working remotely permanently. Facebook began to reopen offices on July 6, but most employees will still to be allowed to work remotely for the rest of 2020.

Dr Amantha Imber, the founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium, is at home in Melbourne, Australia, experiencing ‘Lockdown: The Sequel’.

Transitioning back to work in the office may feel like something in the far distant future, but Amantha Imber wants to share four science-backed tips to help make it a productive process.

  1. Make the move back voluntary and gradualAccording to research by Gallup, most employees are wanting to continue working from home once restrictions are lifted. Research from Microsoft echoes this, suggesting that 71% of employees want to continue working from home for at least some of the time.Because people have been working from home for the better part of four months, new routines and habits have been embedded. And breaking habits is always challenging.

    Some people in your team will be thriving in the home environment. In particular, more introverted people who don’t need as much social contact to feel energised may be dreading the move back. On the flip side, extroverts who are craving people contact are probably dying to get back to a sociable office environment.

    Recognise people’s individual differences and give people freedom to choose how and when they come back. By giving people this choice, you’ll extract the best from all staff.

  2. Let output, not hours, become the normThe sudden “work from home” experiment has, for the most part, been a success in terms of building trust between managers and their staff. Pre-COVID-19, many managers were reluctant to let staff work from home for fear they would binge on Netflix all day and not get any real work done. What bosses have realised is that their companies haven’t fallen apart with staff working from home. Ironically, many people have put in longer hours due to the lack of separation between work and home life.In the office, the clearest signal for managers keeping an eye on their staff’s productivity is seeing people physically being at their desk. However, just because someone is at their desk doesn’t mean they are productive (hello, social media).

    Managers need to avoid falling back into the flawed assumption that hours in the office equates to productivity. Instead, let output and results speak for themselves.

  3. Forget about change fatigue. Provide certainty insteadDue to the enormous amount of change going on in the world, and its impact on how we work, many leaders are worried about people suffering from change fatigue. Dom Price, Head of Research and Development and the resident Work Futurist at Atlassian, doesn’t believe in change fatigue.“I think humans are very good at change,” Price explained to me on the How I Work podcast. “I actually know what we’re struggling with right now is uncertainty. It’s just not knowing what’s going to happen next and that uncertainty causes anxiety.”

    Price told me about a recent Atlassian all-staff Town Hall where Atlassian’s founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar spoke about the transition back to the office. “Mike and Scott told the company ‘When our offices open around the world, if you feel the desire to go back to an office, you’ll be more than welcome. However, we will not expect anyone physically to be in an Atlassian office before January 1.’ You could almost hear the organisation have a massive exhalation of breath.”

    While you may not be able to provide certainty on a lot of things, erring on the side over-communication and transparency will help reduce anxiety.

  4. Use the transition to do a deliberate resetThere is no better time to reset working norms when working with a blank slate. Leaders need to throw out old assumptions and use this time to reinvent what the office experience could look like.At my organisation, behavioural science Inventium, we are using the transition back to question whether we really need a physical office in both Sydney and Melbourne. We have decided to forgo both offices and instead are now planning to experiment with new models such as bringing the entire team together for a week once every month or two, or even renting co-working spaces one day per week to maintain some face-to-face contact and collaboration time.

    While the transition back to the office may seem scary, there are plenty of opportunities to use this as your chance to make things better than they were before.