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May 19, 2021updated 31 Mar 2023 11:05am

What can tech leaders do to prevent return-to-the-office anxiety?

Many staff are reticent about going back to their workplaces after the pandemic. Tech leaders must develop flexible solutions to help.

By Cristina Lago

A quarter of white-collar workers in the UK fear that returning to the office may impact their mental health negatively, new research shows. Tech leaders must take a flexible approach to ensure that staff can develop new working patterns which keep them safe and well and allow them to perform effectively.

The findings, which are part of a study commissioned by digital coaching provider Ezra, are based on a survey of more than 1,000 office workers in the UK. Though the majority are pragmatic about any upcoming changes, one in four fear their mental health will be negatively impacted if they are asked to return to their workplaces. After more than a year of intermittent lockdowns and working from home, organisations are considering whether to recall their workforce to the office or allow flexible arrangements. This includes CIOs who might be wondering what can they do to prevent office return anxiety in them and their teams.

Tech businesses such as Atlassian and Twitter were among the first to announce they would allow staff to work remotely indefinitely after the pandemic hit last year. Many others have adopted a hybrid approach combining working from home and office time, but some companies are pushing for a speedy full return to the office – which is the source of much anxiety for some workers.

Neil Price, CIO practice head at tech recruitment firm Harvey Nash, says that in this new work landscape, showing strong leadership is of paramount importance to avoid return-to-the-office anxiety. During his conversations with CIOs and other IT executives, the consensus has been that work arrangements need to be considered on a one-to-one basis and considering individual necessities and capabilities. Blanket policies are counterproductive and should be avoided.

“We’re entering a time where you need to treat people fairly and evenly, but that doesn’t mean treating everyone the same: you need to treat the individual as the individual,” Price told Tech Monitor. “Some roles can work from home with ease, but not all people can work from home effectively.”

If a member of staff is capable, experienced and comfortable with working remotely, their organisation should be allowing them to do so as long as it does not impact negatively on the position they hold, adds Price. This flexibility should also be applied to those for whom working from home is not as effective or convenient.

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A separate study by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) showed that almost half of the people working from home during lockdown found it to be better for their health and well-being (45%), compared to three in ten who thought the impact had been negative (29%). However, working from home also caused people to feel less connected to their colleagues (67%) and find it harder to switch off from work (56%).

Feelings of isolation were more common among women (58%) than men (39%), the RSPH survey found, and despite this, only a third of those surveyed said that they had been offered support with their mental health from their employer (34%).

Practical tips to tackle return-to-the-office anxiety

But for those workers who are required to go back to the office, what can they do to manage return-to-the-office anxiety? Alaina Burden, leadership and wellness coach at Korn Ferry, says that “re-entry” adjustment is a cause of anxiety in itself, and staff heading back to their workplace are also having to cope with the threat of catching Covid-19, as well as other personal concerns.

“As with life and change, there are some things we can control, and some things we can’t,” Burden tells Tech Monitor. “The key is to focus on what we can control, and that is ourselves. We need to be well and think well. That puts us back in the driver’s seat and helps us to tackle anxiety and potential health threats.”

To achieve this control, Burden recommends three practical steps: taking a positive outlook, taking care of oneself and controlled breathing. On the first step, she says that focusing on the aspects of the return to the office that we are looking forward to, such as having time to read again during the commute, has the potential of easing off some anxiety.

Getting proper sleep, eating healthily and exercising are some basic but effective remedies in tackling anxiety, adds Burden: “Get your sleep. This is imperative to your personal energy, positive outlook and resilience. Have you picked up great habits at home with food? You can now transfer that into your life at work.”

Ultimately, it is the employers’ duty of care to ensure that their staff are not suffering from mental health distress, the Ezra study concludes. By law, employers must introduce health and safety measures in the workplace, and this extends to Covid-19 safety actions and assessments. For tech leaders, maintaining communication and supporting staff at all times are essential to prevent mental health distress, including return-to-the-office anxiety. Harvey Nash’s Price adds that ultimately the priority for CIOs should be for staff to be able to work where they are most effective. “That’s not always home and it’s not always the office, but some sort of a blended model between the two,” he says.

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