Workers are returning to their offices. They're bringing anxiety, questions, even fear with them.
- By the end of March, every state – except Hawaii – would have dropped indoor mask mandates implemented amid the COVID-19 pandemic, paving the way for more in-person work schedules.
- People have discovered two benefits of being remote, namely, eliminating the psychological and financial costs of commuting and realizing that they can be more productive.
- Office occupancy is at 36% in 10 major cities across the country for the week of Feb. 16, with Austin, Texas, leading the pack at almost 52%, according to data from Kastle Systems.
Dr. Harris Baden, a pediatrician who heads the Cardiac Critical Care Unit at Seattle Children's Hospital, is excited about Washington state dropping its indoor mask mandates on March 21.
Baden, who spends half his time seeing patients and the other half as a professor and administrator at the University of Washington School of Medicine, says being unable to gather for training and discussions over the last two years during the pandemic has undermined the education of young residents and fellows.
“There’s definitely been a decay in our sense of engagement, and our connection to the hospital and to the purpose,” says Baden, whose nonclinical work revolves around health care provider experience as well as in-patient and family experience.
“We bear witness to suffering and not having had the chance to sit with your colleagues and commiserate, discuss, and just share in that experience has had an impact on the well-being of providers, not only in terms of their resilience but also in terms of their sense of connection to the organization and to the purpose.”
After a few false starts, organizations – from banks to nonprofits to hospitals – are once again gearing up to bring their employees back to the office.
By the end of March, every state – except Hawaii – would have dropped indoor mask mandates, paving the way for more in-person work schedules.
But after two years of remote work, how will the workers’ transition back to the cubicle play out?
While some are excited about the chance for renewed social interactions and mentorship, others are grappling with feelings of anxiety, depression, and even a fear of reentering the workplace, experts say.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way most people approach work and think about work, says Adam Galinsky, professor of Leadership and Ethics at the Columbia Business School.
He calls it the “new hybrid reality.”
People have discovered two benefits of being remote, namely, eliminating the psychological and financial costs of commuting and realizing that they can be more productive, he says.
“But there's a very clear cost to remote work for both companies and individuals. For companies such as investment banks and the consulting companies, for example, mentoring really suffers,” he says. “So they need people in the office in order to build a culture, to build that collaboration and to mentor people to be successful.”
The trick is to “make it worth their while,” he says.
For instance, at one investment bank he’s consulted, the junior staff or the new recruits are required to come in four to five days, whereas the senior managing directors who are more experienced go in two days.
“But the two days they are in the office, they’re expected to be spending that time mentoring their junior colleagues,” he says.
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At Bank of America, for instance, most employees are expected to be back in March, said John Yiannacopoulos, a company spokesman. Bank of America has not announced a formal hybrid model.
“While we have always had flexibility, we are a predominantly work-from-office culture where our people benefit from partnership and collaboration,” he says.
The company also does not have a vaccine mandate but recently announced it will donate $100 to local food banks for every U.S. employee who either informs them of their booster status or gets a booster by the end of the month.
Citigroup, on the other hand, announced in January that its U.S.-based employees had to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or they'd be fired at the end of the month unless granted an exemption.
Not having a vaccine mandate is also causing anxiety among workers, says Harris Stratyner, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City.
“They hear that there are a lot of people refusing to get the vaccines or the booster, and they worry about being exposed to something," says Stratyner, who practices in Manhattan.
Beyond that, people are worried about reorienting themselves to the work environment, he says.
“We are social creatures and now we've been isolating and there's so much uncertainty,” he says. “There are people wondering ‘Am I gonna be sleepy at work? Am I gonna be overstimulated? We have to be on our best behavior, and we can't be grumpy and we can't take a break when we want to take a break.”
One company has hired him to consult with their employees once a week as a way of checking with them, he says.
According to data from Kastle Systems – which operates security for thousands of buildings across the country – office occupancy is at 36% in 10 major cities across the country for the week of Feb. 16, with Austin, Texas, leading the pack at almost 52%.
Meanwhile, in-person activities for events such as sports, dining and travel are close to pre-pandemic levels, according to an analysis by Kastle.
In February, NBA attendance stood at 93% of the pre-pandemic levels. Travel, measured from data with TSA check-ins was at 77% and 67% of diners were back with reservations at OpenTable compared with February 2020.
“What that tells you is that this is no longer about health and safety because the same people who aren't coming to the office are doing all these other things. And, arguably, the office can be created to be the safest, most controlled environment today,” says Mark Ein, chair of Kastle Systems. “We're in these new rhythms and patterns of working from home and they're hard to break.”
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A tight labor market has prevented companies worried about losing people from being too heavy-handed in their requirement to get employees back to the office, says Ein.
“Employees will be better served to be in an office environment where they can have closer collaboration with their colleagues and more mentoring from their bosses,” he says. “Companies are just trying to figure out how and when to best do that.”
Patti Brooke, vice president of marketing at Seattle-based construction technology startup HeadLight, is looking forward to working with her colleagues two days a week once the mask mandate is lifted next month.
“The organic spontaneity of in-person collaboration results in faster learning,” she says. “So we are really encouraging people to be in person in the office for these opportunities.”
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is the housing and economy reporter for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @SwapnaVenugopal