Will Returning To the Office Impact Productivity?

More business owners are seriously discussing how to re-open their offices. One thing I see missing from these conversations is the impact on productivity these decisions can have. 

As professionals, we tend to think of the office as the default place where work happens. So a quick return to the office looks like the obvious thing to do. After speaking with business owners, senior level managers, and other employees over the past couple weeks, I think this conversation is more nuanced than we have yet to realize. More exploration into this topic is warranted, to avoid unintended consequences and to bring more creative problem-solving into the discussion.

First off, I have heard of many creative ways businesses are re-opening their offices. Here are a few examples across the spectrum of possibility.

  • One company gave every employee the option of whether to go to the office or not, and how often. 80% chose to work remotely full time. Of those who chose to work in the office, most chose to do so part time. The company is fully supportive of this, even after they invested in new HVAC equipment to decrease transmission risk.
  • One business owner simply decided to bring everyone back in, and made the announcement via email. Employees are grumbling amongst each other, unhappy to lose the higher levels of productivity remote work has granted the team. They aren’t sure why management is so eager to upend that.
  • A larger office assigned every employee to one of three “shifts”. One shift will work full time in the office for one week while the other two shifts work from home. They rotate out each week, reducing transmission risk and allowing for full sanitization in between weekly shifts.
  • A smaller office changed company policy to fully remote work, and is transforming their office space into a collaboration hub for client meetings, with a couple hoteling desks.  
  • Another company saw they need to think carefully before making any decisions because the employees are evenly split on how comfortable they are returning to the office, and because of how productive they are – or aren’t – at home. They have delayed plans to re-open the office until they research more options.

The truth is, we’ve all had to get pretty good at our new schedules over the past 3 months. We’ve adapted (whether or not we’ve enjoyed it). Going back to the office will be yet another major disruption. Some welcome the major change. For others, it will create more hardship. 

Let’s explore some aspects of our current lives that could lead to a decline in productivity if employees were brought back into the office. 

  • Timing : Some employees feel it’s too soon to go back to the office. Some would feel more comfortable (and safe) waiting until the fall, while others would prefer to wait until 2021. Risk factors driving this concern are highly personal to individual employees, or may be specific to someone they live with. Concern about contracting the virus ranges from very mild to very severe. 
  • Commute Time : Many employees have utilized their former commute time to be more productive. Losing this time to a resumed commute could mean a drop in total productive time. 
  • Commute Anxiety : Some employees who would commute on public transit, such as trains, subways, or buses, are concerned about the high risk of exposure from transit workers and other passengers – even if they can still use that time to be productive. This twice daily anxiety can be a drain on mental clarity and focus. This exposure risk could also undermine other health and safety precautions your company is taking. 
  • Family Care : Employees who have to care for children or aging parents may struggle to reliably find help due to closures of daycare and summer camps. Babysitters and home care aids may choose not to work right now due to health concerns, meaning limited access to qualified care. This could mean major disruptions and time spent on finding and managing care options during working hours.
  • PPE Anxiety : Some employees are concerned about being required to wear masks all day at work, because of the potential discomfort and other concerns. Other employees are concerned that colleagues will become lax in their vigilance in wearing masks properly at all times, and put themselves and the office at risk. Feeling anxious about PPE all day every day is mentally draining, distracting, and can lead to significant decreases in productivity. 
  • Socializing : Some employees report being more productive at home, due to fewer casual conversations with coworkers and fewer meetings.
  • Feeling of Unfamiliarity : Many offices won’t look the same when they re-open. Colleagues wearing masks, plexiglass dividers, and spaced out floor plans will compound a feeling that “normal” is far away. For some, this can be demotivating and distracting. 

At the same time, a move back to the office may help productivity for some employees and industries.

  • Environment : some employees struggled to focus and be productive at home, and they will thrive in an office environment once again.
  • Socializing : some employees will find more creativity and motivation by being around their coworkers, and more critical information sharing can happen naturally once again.
  • Feeling of Normalcy : some employees are looking forward to feeling like life is finally going back to normal, and the structure, routine, and community of an office can be energizing. 

So what to do? What is the optimal path forward?

It’s highly dependent on your employees’ and business’ needs. I recommend engaging with your team and getting their input on these topics, to discover what would keep them most productive and feeling the most safe. Then talk about the findings and explore new and creative solutions, always keeping employee health and safety as a top priority. Allow our “next normal” to support productive, healthy, resilient employees, even if that looks different than what we’re used to. 

So now over to you. What is missing from these lists? How else may productivity be helped or hindered by a move back into our physical offices? How are you making this decision with your team?

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