Despite the easing of restrictions, businesses across the UK are in no rush to head back into the office. The safety of employees remains a top priority, and with COVID-19 cases rising, it’s understandable that organisations are remaining cautious about employees returning to the office.

Alongside COVID-19, a significant proportion of the UK population have been working remotely for over a year. Everyone, whether that be individuals at the top or bottom of the career ladder, has been psychologically impacted in some way by the pandemic. It’s clear we cannot rush to return to the office.

While some may be reluctant to return, others will be itching to be reunited with their colleagues – there isn’t a one-size-fits all for businesses navigating these next steps. Just as we all adapted differently to remote working, we will all adjust differently to the re-opening of society. So businesses and HR leaders must be strategic – and empathetic – in their approaches to reintroducing their workforces. 

The psychological impact of returning to the office

Businesses have been forced to recognise the impact that psychological wellbeing has on their ability to operate. Juggling remote work with home schooling led to massive spikes of stress and burnout among parents. Ipsos Mori data showed that 60% of employees found it hard to stay positive during last winter’s lockdown, indicative of the toll that it took on their mental health.

The impact of burnout and decreased psychological well-being on job performance is well documented. A paper published in February this year by Lemonaki reaffirmed that making sure employees feel they have the psychological resources needed to cope and feel engaged at work is not only a moral obligation for businesses, but has huge productivity benefits.

Additionally, the benefits of a good night’s sleep can’t be overstated. Before the pandemic, the average UK commute was an hour, so working remotely has given commuters five hours a week back on average. This means that the psychological impact of returning to the office on even a semi-regular basis could result in reduced productivity and even higher attrition. And the benefits of remote working aren’t restricted to rest. With rail ticket prices increasing significantly in recent times, many have also noticed the positive impact on their bank accounts.

Businesses and HR leaders run the risk of employees pushing back if they mandate a full return to office working. Our recent research found that a third (33%) of UK workers would look to leave their company if they were pushed to return to the office full time. Meanwhile, nearly two thirds (60%) want their company to adopt hybrid working, with just 7% preferring five days a week in the office. 

How to manage a successful return

The world of work has changed. But accommodating hybrid working can put organisations in the best position in the coming months, as it’s likely we’ll see a surge of job hunting among workers looking to escape the confines of five days in an office.

The businesses that get the return to work right will build bespoke office return schedules to suit employees’ diverse working styles, as well as incorporating flexible working practices that support employee wellbeing while also boosting productivity. 

Managers must accommodate the big return to suit all personality types that make up their workforce, as each employee may react differently to heading back into the office. They need to understand what makes each individual tick and spot any signs of psychological distress so they can best handle the shift in working environments.

For example, someone who requires a sense of security and believes that taking risks is dangerous needs a more measured approach from business and HR leaders, as they will most likely be reluctant to change. Those who thrive in environments in which their things are controlled and stable will need added support as they will not want to be ‘forced’ into situations that may seem uncertain. 

People-orientated individuals will be motivated by being around their colleagues again and having others to bounce off. Introverted individuals may have the reverse reaction, worrying about distractions and social situations that they haven’t experienced for a while. 

Strike the right balance 

When the time comes for businesses and HR leaders to encourage their employees to return to the office, they must consider how to manage the variety of responses to the change among employees. This will require defining a consistent pattern of office days and non-office days, while still maintaining a level of flexibility, and striking the right balance between the two. 

Only by understanding the psychology of their teams and varied personality traits can business and HR leaders sensitively and successfully manage the return to the office.