Despite the benefits of remote work for employees, many organizations are abandoning it in favor of returning to the office full-time–or part-time in a hybrid model. A recent survey from BetterUp shows that the number of primarily remote roles has been cut in half–and one out of four organizations cite improved connection and culture as the business rationale behind mandated office returns.
However, our research found that returning to an office often is a major disruption to one’s routine, foundational work, and overall life experience. We surveyed 1,400 full-time U.S. employees who were mandated to return to in-office work and found that they had higher burnout, stress, and turnover intentions. They also had lower trust in their organization, engagement, and productivity levels. Our results indicate that if the return-to-office transition is not handled with a high level of humanity, sensitivity, and empathy, workplace culture suffers, and the workforce’s sense of belonging plummets.
We also found that RTO results in pressure on employees’ flexibility, time, and even bank accounts. If you are struggling to adjust to a mandated return to the office, know that you are not alone.
The main challenges of RTO
There are benefits that come from working in person. For example, research BetterUp has done in partnership with the University of California, Riverside found increased life satisfaction and social connectedness as benefits of in-person interaction over technology-mediated interaction.
While it seems intuitive that people form better working relationships in person, poorly communicated and implemented return-to-office mandates breed resentment toward employers. Resentful employees are less likely to bring their authentic selves to the workplace and less likely to invest in those around them.
The most challenging aspect of returning to the office is the commute. This isn’t surprising because commutes of only 30 minutes are linked to higher stress and anger, while 45 minutes or more is linked to poorer overall well-being, daily mood, and health.
What is surprising is the second most challenging aspect of returning to work: the loss of flexibility to switch between work and home tasks for things like accepting a delivery or switching over the laundry between meetings. In a time-starved world, even the smallest time savings can be very important as people attempt to “do it all.”
While some leaders might read this and think “Ah-ha! I knew people were multi-tasking when they should be working!”, the truth is, that remote work is actually a net gain for the organization. Research has found that people in remote work give more total hours to the company.
With disruption comes opportunity
Evidence from BetterUp suggests agency in choice of work arrangement enables people to find a way of work that can optimize performance and well-being.
We also saw that an organization’s decision to require in-office work represents a financial burden for employees. The average employee returning to the office spends $561 per month on transportation, additional child and pet care, and domestic assistance. That is comparable to the average two-person household’s grocery bill in the U.S. for the entire month.
So what can you do if your employer mandates your return-to-office?
First, focus on maximizing the benefits of this life change, including the opportunity to deepen your relationships and collaborate more with your coworkers. Take advantage of the hybrid work model to connect with the people who are physically there as much as possible (rather than only logging on to virtual meetings).
Second, consider if returning to the office represents an opportunity for better work-life balance. If you are back in the office full-time, can you embrace leaving work at work? Can you create desirable new habits or routines like going to the gym on your way in each day? Shifting back into in-person work is a major systemic disruption, but with that disruption comes the opportunity to design healthier habits.
Finally, ask for what you need to thrive while returning to the office. Do you need a late start so you can continue to drop your kids off at school? Do you need better commuter benefits to offset financial costs? Do you need a coach to support you as you make the transition back to the office? Thoughtfully raise these needs with your manager.
Return-to-office mandates can affect employees– and not necessarily in the ways that leaders are hoping. If you are in a situation where you are being asked to dramatically shift your way of working, know that it’s normal to find this transition difficult, to have a mix of emotions about it, and most importantly, that it’s never wrong to ask for what you need.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist, author, speaker, and coach dedicated to redesigning the way we work. She is currently BetterUp’s VP of coaching, excellence, and innovation.
Erin Eatough, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, and co-founder of the evidence-based HR consultancy Fractional Insights, helping organizations navigate leading-edge people challenges in the post-industrial era.
Kristi Leimgruber, Ph.D., is a comparative psychologist who currently serves as a behavioral scientist at BetterUp Labs. Her research on the psychology and evolution of cooperation has been published in peer-reviewed journals around the world.
Khoa Le Nguyen, Ph.D., is a behavioral scientist at BetterUp Labs, studying well-being and human potential in and outside work.
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