Back to Office Jitters

For many, hybrid work presents an opportunity for companies and employees to change how they work. But at the same time a lot of people are nervous about getting back to the office. They’re grappling with a lack of flexibility, the hassle of the daily commute, and finding work life balance. This episode is all about back to the office jitters.

PODCAST | 25m
September 22, 2021
S4:Ep1

Executive summary

  • Hear how Ultima, a company in the UK, is easing people back into the office with its own unique blueprint for a new hybrid workplace
  • Psychotherapist Joyce Marter shares her biggest takeaways for easing the anxiety that comes with heading back to the office.

Melanie Green (host):

A lot of people are nervous about getting back to the office.  The things that have them worried?  COVID-19 of course, but there’s more: lack of flexibility. The hassle of the daily commute. I’m Melanie Green and this season of Remote Works is here to help.  Remote Works is your personal hybrid work survival guide. I’ll be asking some big questions about how work is changing again. Questions about how and where we meet now.  Security.  And what Gen Z can teach the rest of us about the new hybrid workplace. So let’s get down to it. Episode one: Back-to-the-Office Jitters. We’ve gotten used to making lunch for the kids while we’re in a virtual all-hands meeting.  But now things are changing again: How do we rebalance work and life if we’re headed back to the office even just for a few days a week? And how do we interact with people again? Can we resurrect our chit-chat skills when we run into a work mate at the water cooler?

And how do we handle our workload when we’re moving between the boardroom and the living room? I want to explore how we can not only survive but thrive as hybrid workers. In a few minutes I’ll talk to Joyce Marter.  She’s a clinical counselor who has been helping a lot of people who are feeling shaky going back to the office. She’ll give us her big takeaways about dealing with this anxiety.

 

Melanie Green (host):

 

First though, I want you to meet someone who is navigating his staff through this big transition to a new way of working. 

 

Gareth Meyer is the commercial and operations director for Ultima Business Solutions. That’s a tech company in Reading, outside London. They have 410 employees spread across the UK.

 

Gareth is figuring out that magical balance: how much time people will spend back in the office and how much time they’ll be working at home. And he’s also tackling a complete remodel of the workspace.

 

Gareth Meyer:

So, you know, there is a sense of nervousness, you know, the pandemic has really either brought people together or really split people apart.

 

Melanie Green (host):

So how does someone like Gareth decide what hybrid work looks like for hundreds of employees who each have a different level of comfort around a return to the office? He does a lot of listening.

Gareth Meyer:

You know, I'm, I've made myself very, very available to all our employees. So you know, half my day today is spent with our employee. I fix those one-to-ones still to remain in the calendar and I absolutely stick to them. There's no way you can understand truly what your employee is feeling if you're not communicating with them.

Melanie Green (host):

Many of those employees were already working remotely before the pandemic.  Making the move to fully remote work wasn’t hard because they were equipped with the right technology.  But through the pandemic some moved further from the office.  Others were hired from further afield.

 

Gareth Meyer:

We've all proven to ourselves that we can work remotely and we can do a very good job at doing so. So company kickoffs are going to be classified as what we see as mandatory in some aspects where we do a big announcement. They don't happen very often. But the day to day working is absolutely going to be remote in that sense. We are refurbishing all our offices, creating more space, and accommodating more people. So I'm hoping we see more of a want to come into the office - versus a need.

And I think those are two very separate things

Melanie Green (host):

 

So at Ultima there will be the occasional mandatory full company meeting, but the rest of the time, it’s mostly up to the employee. So it’s Gareth’s job to make the office a space that‘s worth coming to, rather than a chore.  His colleague Stacie Hill, head of marketing at Ultima, is working on all of the details with Gareth to make the office a place people want to come back to. Guiding Stacie’s design is an empathy for her colleagues. She gets it: not only the fear some have about being back in the office but also the impact of being isolated for the past year-and-a-half.

Stacie Hill:

One example has been someone whose friends and kind of colleagues are actually their primary form of social interaction. So they've actually really really struggled being at home and have faced a huge, huge amount of anxiety and really kind of loneliness but I think it's just, it's crazy how much it's kind of done that to them really. So it's been a case of actually building a safe space for people to really come back and really kind of making sure that they're going to be okay and actually facilitating that need.

Melanie Green (host):

That welcoming space includes a cocktail bar on site where people can get together in a place that feels safe and comfortable.  It also includes a fitness center.  Gareth makes it clear that the time he and Stacie are investing into transforming the office for their employees will pay off.

Gareth Meyer:

So, you know, we want to create a team at the end of the day. We're all part of the same business. We're all driving to excel in our roles, expand on our careers. At the end of the day we don't classify this as a job. This is a career, right?  And we've seen that more and more recently. Some of the changes we're making are significant. You know, we're doing away with all senior executive offices. There's no need for them anymore. We absolutely want to be a part of our teams, So you know, I'm losing this office space I'm sitting in right now in the next couple of months.

 

Melanie Green (host):

So no more senior offices. That’s big. Gareth knows that a lot of office design is done by anchor bias. We do it because that’s just the way it’s always been done. He’s ready to take it all apart and build something completely new.   And Stacie, who helped keep employee morale up during the pandemic by organizing virtual activities and sending staff hampers at Christmas, well she knows what an office needs to foster human connection.

Stacie Hill:

What we're doing is creating numerous collaboration spaces across like the whole office. So actually creating areas, whether that's kind of, I don't know, like a four person booth or bigger kinds of tables and more breakout areas where people can sit and actually converse and think of new ideas. Cause obviously in the tech industry, ideation is a huge part of everything that everyone does. We're also creating a wellbeing room. So having somewhere where we can  go sit in a rocking chair, listening to some calm music, do some yoga, or even kind of have just that moment of peace is super, super important and something that we've definitely built into our redesign

Melanie Green (host):

Ultima’s new space sounds like it’s going to be welcoming and fun but it’s also about productivity. And everything Gareth and Stacie are doing is driven by the question: how can the hybrid office help us as employees? One of the big things an office can do is encourage direct face-to-face connection. To help make that happen, the company has brought together its different units which used to be in separate locations.

Gareth Meyer:

I suppose the biggest change to our environment is we set up three businesses internally within Ultima. So you've got our professional services unit, you've got our managed service business, and then you've got our day-to-day operations. So previously our technical service center was distanced from our business. They sat on another level within the building. We're actually bringing them up as to form part of the Ultima group now, not putting them down in the other level. So everyone is across one floor, we're one business. 

 

Melanie Green (host):

A better organized and more efficient workspace shows employees that the company is making it worth their while to head back to the office. Gareth Meyer says it’s all about enticing your people back: all carrot, no stick.

Gareth Meyer:

There is no forcing employees back in. You enforce that and I think you'll lose really good employees. The fact is that it's allowed us to really expand our recruitment process - get on some very skilled individuals that we would never have looked at in those areas.  We will never enforce them into the office. So open those communications up. Have that chat, because I think you'll be kind of surprised at the response you get. No manager in their right mind wants to lose good employees..

Melanie Green (host):

The approach at Ultima is to create an office that people want to come back to. And to recognize that working remotely most of the time is the best option for many of the staff. But even working with people like Gareth and Stacie, a lot of us would still welcome some advice around the anxiety that goes with heading back to the office. Joyce Marter is a professional counselor and founder of Urban Balance, a counseling practice with over 160 therapists working in six states.

Joyce and her team have seen an endless stream of people anxious about heading back to the office. They’ve learned a lot about how to help them.

Joyce Marter:

Even prior to the pandemic, we were in a mental health epidemic and the pandemic added fuel to the fire. There's also social anxiety. We've been kind of hibernating for the past year and a half. And certainly a lot of stress about the logistical challenge of work-life balance. Partners needing to get clear on their division of labor in terms of dependent care with kids or elderly. And many of us are feeling burnt out in a state of overwhelm and burnout and going through yet another change. So it's been a tremendous amount.

 

Melanie Green (host):

Joyce has three big takeaways for people facing the stress of the ever-changing work week.  The first one? Look after yourself. Seems pretty simple but it’s so easy to forget. 

 

Joyce Marter:

Your feelings are a normal response to these challenges so I encourage you to practice self compassion. Don't judge yourself, or shame yourself for having these feelings. And to practice excellent self care, make sure that you're getting enough sleep, that you're exercising, that you're hydrating. Having a morning routine according to the research, is one of the best ways to set your day up for success. So instead of grabbing your phone for, and looking at emails, take some time to breathe, set an intention, meditate,  journal. Anything that's going to help you find inner calm.

 

Melanie Green (host):

Ok, we’ve all heard that it’s good to practice self-compassion. And it’s pretty easy to say do this, don’t do that. But how do we CHANGE our mindset to really make it happen?

 

Joyce Marter:

We all have self-talk. The voice in our head, that constant narrative or chatter, and we have an inner critic And that voice is very harmful. It causes self-sabotage and it fuels anxiety and depression. So if we can silence our inner critic and then instead speak to ourselves as we would if we were our own loving parent or our own best friend or our own compassionate advocate. So saying, you know what? It's okay that you feel this way. I got you, we're going to get through this together one step at a time and kind of positively coach yourself instead of bombarding yourself with thoughts of catastrophic thinking of fear and negativity.

 

Melanie Green (host):

So I need to just take a deep breath, exhale, And give myself a break. It’s okay to make a few mistakes as I figure out a new routine. That’s lesson number one.

 

Joyce’s second takeaway is a big one when it comes to hybrid work.  Keep a careful eye on the balance you strike between your work life and everything else.

 

Joyce Marter:

People are having a lot of challenges with work-life balance. So it's important to come up with a structure for your schedule and to build in time for self care and support and to use assertive communication to set those healthy boundaries with yourself, with your employer, with your loved ones so that you won't be suffering from the disease of being busy and that you'll have time to refill your cup so that you can stay mentally healthy and well.

 

Melanie Green (host):

We all struggle with work-life balance. At different times we all have a hard time putting boundaries on when our work days begin and end.  Joyce has an answer about why it’s so important.

Joyce Marter:

Well, boundaries are limits we set with time, space, information. We have physical boundaries, we have financial boundaries and those limits help us feel safe and comfortable in the context of relationships. And assertive communication is the happy medium between being passive and being aggressive. It's when we're diplomatic, we're honest, we're clear. And we demonstrate respect for ourself and the other person. I always say healthy self-esteem is midway between diva and doormat. The doormat is somebody who's not respectful of his or her own boundaries and many of us struggle with that. I think particularly women, we're socialized to be people pleasers and to put others' needs before our own. And so we struggle with shame and guilt and anxiety about taking care of ourselves when we really need to prioritize our own health and wellness so that we can be of service to others, both at home and at work.

Melanie Green (host):

Joyce’s third takeaway for making the move back into the office?

 

Joyce Marter:

Access support. The greater our stressors, the higher self care we need and the higher support we need. And during the pandemic, we've had greater stress and less support. So making sure that you're reaching out to friends and family, that you're talking about how you're feeling. If you're feeling anxious or overwhelmed, talk to somebody. I think therapy and counseling as something healthy and proactive, I have had therapy on and off throughout my life. When the pandemic first started, I called my therapist for a tune-up and it's enormously helpful and I think a lot of people don't realize it's also affordable. 80% of employers offer an EAP plan that offers free and confidential counseling and referral services for any kind of mental health or personal issue.

 

Melanie Green (host):

 

Talking to other people is so important. Maybe a friend or a therapist - it doesn’t matter, as long as we’re connecting with someone else. Now let’s take that to the HR level. Remember Gareth from Ultima? He prioritized listening to what his employees had to say. He was there for them. Joyce says it’s incredibly important to create a safe space for employees to really speak frankly. 

 

 

Joyce Marter:

I think employers need to survey their employees anonymously. They need to reach out to them and talk to them personally, ask them how they're doing, how they're feeling about things. There needs to be compromise and collaboration and open discussion. Because right now we're seeing what's called the great resignation. In April alone, 4 million employees resigned from their jobs and there's also a movement toward entrepreneurship. During the first quarter of the year, 1.1 million people, a  little more than that, started their own businesses in the United States. So this is making it difficult for employers to hang on to their employees and promoting  mental health and wellness and workplace safety, and a collaborative, compassionate culture is an absolute priority to maintain your staff.

 

Melanie Green (host):

So it’s not just all about being warm and fuzzy. It’s about keeping your best and brightest. It’s how the most successful companies are retaining their employees. And Joyce also points out that employers need to take some lessons from remote working, as we move forward.

 

Joyce Marter:

I think one thing to think about is that the research is showing that people who've been working from home have actually been more productive and working more hours because they're not commuting. So I think employees enjoy that and that works well for them. It's actually advantageous for the employer as well. And then I think another thing is to have realistic expectations, to understand that people are under stress right now. And what I’ve been hearing across the board is that people are having enormously high expectations of their employees, which is going to burn them out. One company hired me to do a work-life balance training and they said, we don't want you to tell our employees to work less because we need them to work 80 to 100 hours per week, which is extremely concerning. The World Health Organization just put out a study that 785,000 people die each year because of overwork and burnout. And those are people who are working 55 hours a week and up. So I think employers need to figure out if they want to keep their staff healthy and well and productive and not have turnover, which is all enormously expensive in terms of healthcare costs, sick time, employee turnover, et cetera, they need to focus on prevention and on not overworking their people.

 

Melanie Green (host):

 

Joyce Marter knows that there is real value in empathy in terms of employee relations. And as the head of her own company, she not only talks the talk, she walks the walk.

 

Joyce Marter:

I remember one of my employees actually, she was an intern and I gave her some tasks and she said, Okay, Joyce, you just gave me 20 hours of work and I have four hours left this week. What items would you like me to prioritize? And she said it in a way that was kind and assertive. And I really respected her for that because I didn't realize that I'd given her that much work. And she could have done it and then secretly hated me and been exhausted and resentful and burned out and instead she was assertive and diplomatic and I was able to prioritize items and, and that set her up for success. So I think we all need to learn from my student intern, Ellen, and speak assertively to our employers about what's realistic and what's not.

 

Melanie Green (host):

And I’ve learned a lot from Joyce Marter - and from Gareth Meyer and Stacie Hill. I’m going to embrace Joyce’s three work survival strategies. Make sure that I cut myself some slack and take breaks. Be ready to make mistakes and don’t be too hard on myself. That’s lesson number one. Joyce’s second takeaway is so important when it comes to hybrid work.  Keep a careful eye on the balance between your work life and everything else. Make sure there are tangible barriers. No work emails at 3 am. And finally, access support. Reach out for help. For me, it’s difficult to let my vulnerabilities show, but it’s so important to surviving all the change that we’re in now.  It’s like Joyce says, the greater our stressors, the more self-care we need and the more support we need. Keep talking to people. Keep the connections strong. And keep listening to Remote Works: Hybrid Survival Guide, an original podcast on Fieldwork by Citrix. Subscribe and come back in two weeks. Because next time - it’s all about meetings..  Love them or hate them, it’s hard to get around them. Now that work is happening everywhere, in the office, at home, in the coffee shop, meetings are more complicated.  How do you do meetings now?  My journey to learn more about hybrid work continues next time.  You won’t want to miss it. 

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