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You Were Unsure about Working Remotely, Now You're Unsure about Returning to the Office. Russell Clayton Has the Answers

By Keith Morelli

Russel Clayton

TAMPA (May 27, 2021) -- Some 15 months ago, the face of the American workplace changed. Has it changed forever? Perhaps. Maybe some innovations will stick. In other cases, it will be back to work as usual. Over the next few months, most employees working remotely for the past year will be called back in, sparking a good amount of angst about commutes, office attire and getting back to the 9-to-5 grind.

The biggest concern? Safety, according to Russell Clayton, an instructor in the USF Muma College of Business’ School of Marketing and Innovation who is an expert on workforce dynamics and organizational behavior.

“One of the main emotional hurdles for many will simply be personal safety,” he said. “There are still a many workers uneasy about COVID-19 and potentially getting it. Returning to the workplace may induce anxiety for those people because physically returning means being around others. This is a tough one for organizations to address.”

A second emotional hurdle has less to do with health concerns and more to do with simply having to contend with change, Clayton said. “It is no surprise that most typically resist change,” he said, “and many have been working from home now for over a year and are ‘comfortable’ in that role.

“While they might desire the benefits, such as the social interaction that is part of being in the physical workplace, being resistant to change may be unsettling. This is mainly due to our brains being somewhat hardwired to resist change – sometimes we interpret change as a threat – thus inducing anxiety about the change of returning to the workplace.”

Most people have also spent the past year cultivating a work-from-home routine and now that routine is about to be upended, he said. “That's anxiety inducing as well.”

Some advice about easing the stress of physically going back to work: “Proactively frame this transition back to the office as a positive,” Clayton said. “That is, think through all the benefits of returning to the workplace instead of ruminating on the negatives.”

He said those benefits could include a resumption of the social, in-person interaction with co-workers.

“That will be a big draw for many,” he said. “We are all fighting ‘Zoom fatigue’ and are ready to see co-workers in person again.”

Research has shown that the positive impacts face-to-face connections have on employees include increased productivity and reduced burnout. The recommendation for organizations to put these positives in focus: Make fostering social connections a strategic priority, Clayton said. “This is easier done in person than via a Zoom call."

Many workers returning to the office this summer and fall may find that some of the innovations put into place over the past year may stick around, like more liberal work-from-home policies. Many organizations have found that worker productivity, in many instances, actually increased in this environment, Clayton said.

“The benefits of working from home that likely worked in favor of increased worker productivity,” he said, “include no time wasted commuting and fewer interruptions during the work day.”

Many organizations found that many employees enjoyed the experience. So, managers may begin loosening attendance polices, “offering grace to employees,” Clayton said, “but I think it's largely because anxiety surrounding COVID-19 is still high for some people. I can also see businesses that do not have many fixed costs, such as office spaces, offering the flexibility to continue working from home.”

Return-to-work advice for those telling their employees to come back in?

“They should clearly communicate the reasons why their workers are being asked to return to the workplace,” Clayton said, “like providing data from some surveys that show many workers exhibiting burnout while working from home as well as being less productive.

“I would also provide a long lead time in terms of the announcement of workers returning and them actually returning,” he said. “In other words, don’t tell them on Friday to come back in on Monday. This provides employees with enough time to process the news, ready their minds for change, make any necessary arrangements, such as child and elder care, and ultimately return to the workplace.”

Eventually, Clayton said, at some point many organizations will have a large chunk of their workforce return to work. When? That remains unanswered.

“I expected it to have happened already,” he said. “Some organizations and/or industries will do better with the in-person collaboration between employees that working in the workplace offers.”

Some industries have bought into having their workforce toiling away remotely.

“There is a lot of hype from the Googles of the world about working from home being here to stay and productivity not dropping, etc.,” he said, “but I do not think that's the norm.” He cited an October 2020 Gallup poll that suggested working from home was leading to burnout.

“There are several factors that could be causing this work-from-home burnout, such as always being ‘on’ since your office is now where you live, or the fact that it may take more time to complete a work task at home than it does at work.”

Clayton said one study found that only 11 percent of employees felt more productive and more engaged with remote work than work from the office.