How leaders can help employees back to the office

8 November 2021

Guest column by Petra Lindfors, Professor of Psychology at Stockholm University.

Returning to the office after having worked remotely from home during the pandemic may involve challenges. While some have been successful in working from home, others have had to overcome a number of challenges. Regardless of whether a post-pandemic working life will involve more flexibility or not, organisational leadership and management need to find ways to navigate through the potentially challenging process of going back to the office.

While many have enjoyed and been successful in working remotely from home during the pandemic, others have struggled and missed their offices. The reasons behind the differences in individual experiences of remote work during the pandemic vary. While international research suggests an increased burden on working women who have had to juggle remote work while also catering for children whose education has moved online, or dealing with family members interrupting their work, others have come to value spending more time with family, friends, and on leisure activities instead of the daily commute to the office. This means that some office workers are more willing to return to the office, while those who value their increased flexibility may be more reluctant to return to full-time office work.

While the pandemic called for emergency remote work solutions and swift adjustment as leadership and management had to learn new ways of communicating efficiently and providing support and feedback to co-workers, today there is more time to prepare and ponder potential solutions to the post-pandemic working life. While many agree that the office still plays an important role in the future working life, ideas on how the space should be used vary. Some argue that the office should, at least partly, be turned into a meeting space that allows creative discussions, while others point at the necessity of providing all employees with a desk. Yet others argue that increased flexibility involves having employees working at least a couple of days a week at the office and rotating between office work and remote work at home as a way of optimising job performance, job satisfaction, and well-being. Also, both leadership and management need to be ready to handle the different expectations of their co-workers regarding any future opportunities to continue working from home which will require additional managerial flexibility. In particular, this would require leaders and managers to consider whether remote work is at all a feasible option for an organisation, and if so, identify the work tasks that can be performed remotely, reconsider and provide technological solutions that facilitate working successfully at different places. Maintaining flexibility in a post-pandemic working life includes acknowledging both positive and negative experiences of working remotely during the pandemic to make informed decisions on how different and potentially divergent individual, workgroup, and organizational needs can be met while still providing a good working environment.

Ideally, leadership and management should strive for an open discussion on how to structure the post-pandemic working life. This openness involves communicating clearly that the open discussion is a process and that any sustainable organisational solutions must strive to balance individual experiences and expectations and organizational needs. Moreover, organisational responsibilities will include providing employees with possibilities to successfully carry out their different work tasks while also creating opportunities for social exchange, career development and learning, long-term health and well-being. Importantly, these organisational processes and solutions are likely to vary between organisations depending on organizational size, and the work tasks specific to the occupations within a particular organisation.

At times, organisational decisions that managers have to communicate may come into conflict with individuals’ strive for increased flexibility. However, clearly written policies that are accessible to all within an organisation may then be particularly helpful for leadership and management in communicating how employees within a particular organisation can successfully tackle the challenges of post-pandemic working life, and how a strategically sound leadership and management can support a transition back to the office and facilitate the sustainability of both employees and the organisation.

ABOUT STOCKHOLM UNIVERSITY

SCC member Stockholm University was founded as a college in 1878, reaching university status since 1960. With over 33,000 students at four different faculties: law, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, it is one of the largest universities in Scandinavia.

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