Finally, after almost two years, employees are streaming back to the office. Yet the expected verve has yet to materialize. Employees are a few points shy of quotas, a few days short of deadlines. What’s going on?
Change, that’s what. People didn’t just get used to working from home — 90 percent say they are as or more productive at home than in the office, according to Owl Lab’s 2021 State of Remote Work report. Some workers are back at the office against their wishes, with 39 percent of respondents back because their employer is requiring them to be, and 29 percent are back because it’s their preferred work environment.
Whether your office situation is traditional, remote or hybrid, it might help to understand the factors that harm productivity, and how you as a manager and leader can help employees get back on the path to 100 percent productivity. As it turns out, there are some fairly easy steps you and your team can take to smooth the transition.
5 Things that Hurt In-Office Productivity
- Stress and health issues caused by a change in routine.
- Getting used to the physical office.
- Relearning how to be around other people.
- The return of unpleasant or toxic office politics.
- The whiplash of context-switching between the home office and the real office.
Wellness Affects Productivity — and Commutes Don’t Help
“People who aren’t feeling their best aren’t able to bring their best to work,” said Lorna Borenstein, CEO and founder of Grokker, which creates wellness programs for employers. The employee disengagement tied to poor health costs employers $530 billion a year, $280 billion of which comes from lost productivity. “Even fatigue is expensive, costing between $1,200 and $3,100 per employee annually in declining job performance,” she said.
Commutes, especially long ones, can damage both physical and mental health. Studies show that commutes can contribute to higher cholesterol, higher blood sugar, weight gain and unhealthy waist measurements (who has time to exercise, sitting in a car twice a day?). A feeling of social disconnect and even depression can result from long commutes. Being tied to an office can also curtail the time people need for self care, such as doctor’s appointments and regular workouts.
Managers can take two steps to address productivity-harming wellness issues. One is to ask employees about wellness. Research conducted by Borenstein’s Grokker Innovation Labs shows a big disconnect between managers and employees, with 77 percent of leaders saying they personally check in with employees — but only 18 percent of employees saying that their manager has asked them about their mental health. Plus, only one third of employees say their workplace offers wellness programs.
“The best way to show employees that it’s okay for them to engage in physical and emotional self care is for them to see their managers doing the same.”
To ask about mental wellness without violating privacy, Borenstein suggests questions along the following lines: “How do you feel that meeting went?” “What’s stressing you out about this assignment?” “How are things going — anything you’d like to chat about?” “I notice you seem quieter than usual. How are you feeling today?”
Managers can encourage these conversations by sharing their own experiences and any stress they might be going through, she said. “That will help employees feel more comfortable sharing about their own mental health,” she said. Anonymous surveys can also help managers get a pulse on the overall mental wellbeing of their teams; by asking questions about stress alleviation, they can take steps to reduce stress on teams.
The second step is to participate with employees in well-being programs, and to set a good example by not working during your own time off. Not doing so “is a huge mistake,” Borenstein said. “The best way to show employees that it’s okay for them to engage in physical and emotional self care is for them to see their managers doing the same.”
Participation by management also fosters feelings of connection and trust between employees and managers, she said.
New Routines Take Time
Just as employees had to get used to working from home, now they need to readjust to working from the office. “For most employees, they’ve forgotten how to ‘office well’ and need a little retraining,” said James Durago, head of HR at Molecula, an AI startup based in Austin, Texas. Other employees, hired and onboarded in the last 18 months, have never set foot in the office.
Pretty much everyone had to figure out, or re-figure out, parking, how to handle drop-offs and pickups for kids, how to orchestrate getting lunch (Molecula doesn’t have a kitchen) and even when to say “hi” to someone (“we can actually interrupt people in the office,” Durago noted).
“For most employees, they’ve forgotten how to ‘office well’ and need a little retraining.”
The fix? Consider a “dry run” before employees return to the office in full. For two months before Molecula’s office officially reopened, a set of employees representative of the whole team came to the office to simulate a full day’s work and capture the experience of being there, from parking in the morning to leaving at the end of the day. The practice run rekindled skills including time management and in-person communication skills.
Molecula managers asked employees what was missing and how they could make the return to the office more “pleasurably productive,” Durago said. “Turns out we were 75 percent of the way there and the dry run helped to close the gap,” he said. Making sure items like monitors, desks and soundproofing were up and running and the quiet room and game room were functional helped smooth the way for employees’ return.
The Physical Office and Workspace Feel Different
“What’s very interesting to me is how much our physical space impacts our productivity,” said Danielle Boris, founder and CEO of New York-based ConnectFor, which helps companies promote equal opportunity and inclusion on their teams. Research, she said, shows that productivity increases by 32 percent when people have ownership over their physical work space.
Even if it’s a closet. One fifth of respondents to Owl Labs’ survey said their home office is in a closet. One fourth chose to work in a coffee shop, 31 percent chose a co-working space, and almost 75 percent worked from a home office. The uniting factor? All those spaces are defined work spaces — easy enough to leave (or shut the door), return to “real life” and leave work behind.
It might not be possible to recreate the home office (or closet) at the real office, but managers can do a few things to try. Offices that restrict the number of or forbid personal items (photos and plants, for instance) on desks might benefit from easing up those restrictions. Giving employees the freedom to arrange furniture and computer placement to make the workspace feel like their own, or even providing a budget for it, can help. So will the ability to move around the office to work, just as employees might have carried their laptops around their houses while working remotely.
Continuity in physical spaces can also aid productivity, Boris said. For example, a long-term planning session composed of several meetings should take place in the same space, as people remember things in association with their environment (students who learn a subject and take a test on it in the same room do better on the test).
Finally, whether they’re at home or in the office, employees must be engaged with and interested in their work to perform at top levels. “The nodes in our brain literally fire, trying to connect the dots between different things,” Boris said. “When we’re interested in what we do, those nodes fire stronger, and that leads to creativity and innovation,” she said.
Being Around People Can Be Stressful
As people worked remotely, partners, pets and kids took the place of colleagues, who were relegated to 2D status on video. Returning to real life, and real-life connections with colleagues, can cause stress and awkwardness. Also keep in mind that people who left jobs and onboarded at new companies during the time of remote working are seeing offices and meeting colleagues in real life for the first time.
The fix? Encourage social connection beyond work-related activities like meetings, for instance regular social hours like a mid-morning coffee break, Borenstein said. Socially connected employees are more productive, produce higher-quality work, have higher overall feelings of well-being and are better at engaging customers, Borenstein said.
To create space between work time and social time, designate “work-only” or “study hall” hours dedicated to deep work, thinking and planning, Borenstein suggests. Spaces in the office set aside for people who need time alone or to focus, set far away from common areas such as break rooms, also help create the divide.
‘Hybrid’ Can Mean ‘Confusing’
The very thing employees want might be hurting their productivity. It’s challenging to coordinate and run video meetings when half the attendees are remote and the other half are in a conference room. Tech issues such as frozen screens and dropped connections might exasperate in-office employees. And how weird is it to be in an office, with other people, yet still logging on to a video meeting?
Flexibility might be the best remedy. “It’s one of the things that people have enjoyed most about working remotely during the pandemic and it makes sense: flexible work schedules allow employees to find a balance between work and life that fits best within their schedule and takes their other needs (childcare, healthcare, fitness) into account,” Borenstein said.
Flexibility can take the form of start and end times for the day (maybe 7-3 or 10-6 works better for some employees), or time away during the day to take a walk, work out or run errands. Flexibility shows employees that their managers trust them and care about them as people, not just workers, which in turn instills a desire to do their best for their managers and companies.
Office Politics Are Back
Office politics and the stress bundled with them took a back seat as employees worked remotely. “Now they will return,” Borenstein said. “Managers must beware because these office politics do negatively impact employee productivity and have the potential to create toxic work environments that are bad for employee well-being.”
Focus on transparency, connection and flexibility to deal with office politics, Borenstein advised. “Leaders need to help employees feel more connected to them as whole people (not just as cogs in the corporate wheel) and therefore more able to come to them with any issues they might be experiencing in the workplace without a need to resort to politics,” she said. Leaders, too, must bring their whole selves to work and not be afraid to be honest and authentic with employees — nor be afraid to share bad news or hard truths openly.
“Thoughtfully laying the foundation for ‘being real’ at work can help people feel a sense of purpose, belonging, and balance that unites them with their team and company as a whole.”
Authenticity helps create a psychologically safe workspace in which employees feel more capable of dealing with tangled office politics, she said. “Thoughtfully laying the foundation for ‘being real’ at work can help people feel a sense of purpose, belonging, and balance that unites them with their team and company as a whole,” Borenstein said.
Sounds like a prescription for a healthy, productive workspace — in real life and virtually.