Returning to the Workplace: Will we go back to our old habits?

In 2018, The Lancet Psychiatry journal published a report indicating that maintaining a daily routine can benefit your mental health. The study found that following a routine could lead to better cognitive functioning and a decreased likelihood of developing major depression and bipolar disorder. 

Over the last year, many employees’ routines have been disrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, mental health has suffered. According to a February 2021 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, during the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, an increase from 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.

Additionally, according to recent research by the World Economic Forum, about half of working adults globally say they have increased stress due to changes in work routines and organization, loneliness or isolation working from home, or difficulty achieving a work-life balance as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These conditions could be alleviated as workers begin to return to the office and revive previous routines or adopt new ones. Returning employees will be faced with familiar practices such as daily commutes, meetings, and in-person interactions, but with new rules, protocols, and layouts. In addition to relearning some old workplace habits, they will also use what they’ve learned during the pandemic to establish new ones, such as incorporating small exercise breaks throughout the day like walks or yoga stretches. Short bursts of exercise can not only help metabolic health but mental health as well. 

Balancing the commute

In the United States, the average worker spends an hour every day commuting to and from work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. During the pandemic, the most-voiced comment from remote workers about the sudden change was gratitude about not having to commute. On the plus side, many people were able to reclaim the time previously used for their daily commute and use this time in other ways. Some spent this time exercising, while others used it to spend more quality time with their families. One the negative side, many more used the time to work more hours, which can blur the line between home and work life and lead to burnout. The hybrid workplace can help achieve balance by not only alleviating burnout but also the dreaded commute. By going into the office 1 to 4 days a week, office workers have the opportunity to achieve a better work/life balance and alter work hours to avoid peak commute hours and stressful traffic. 

“For those of us working from home during this time, many of us have learned the benefits of an extra three hours a day to connect with family, get out for a run or cook a decent meal,” Becky Skiles, partner and chief marketing officer, Deloitte Digital, said in an interview with The Drum about the pull of old working habits after the pandemic. “I hope that in continuing to focus on these benefits that we’ve all come to see as part of our day-to-day while working from home, we will find that comfortable middle to work collaboratively and creatively with our teams – both within the office and virtually within our homes.”

Rethinking communication

Even before the pandemic, many companies often had employees working in distributed locations that made traditional communication methods like regular meetings difficult. As a result, employees at these companies have had to find different ways to communicate and remain engaged. The pandemic has made this true for even more employees. According to a recent Hubspot employee survey, 81% of HubSpot employees said they are developing new communication behaviors as a result of the pandemic. As flexible work arrangements allow some employees to continue to work remotely, employers will have to rethink traditional meetings. 

Reimagining communication is more than switching to virtual one-on-one calls with direct reports. The structure of communication historically relied on participants being in the same location or at least on a conference call at the same time and coming to a consensus in real time. Moving forward, with a hybrid workforce, communication will need to be more asynchronous. Meetings will still need to be structured with a clear agenda, but instead of scheduling the meeting at a specific time, attendees can participate and comment when it’s convenient for them. For those attending in-person and virtual meetings, it’s important to maintain a balance and schedule breaks between meetings. Companies will also need to strategize the best venue or platform for all-hands meetings--in-person or virtual. 

“Ordinarily, I lean towards ‘less is more,’ but with informal communication like water cooler chats currently unavailable to us all, I’m erring on the side of over-communicating,” says Shahid Nizami, is managing director, Asia Pacific at HubSpot. “When we were based primarily in the office, I would meet with my team weekly and this was enough, as we’d bump into each other and could always catch up over a coffee throughout the week. Since we’ve been working from home, I’ve added in a second weekly meeting with each team member, along with ensuring the team knows I’m available on channels like Slack if they need to reach me.”

Essential to the work environment, collaboration, ideation, growth, productivity, and performance are the unscheduled and spontaneous “meeting before the meeting” or “meeting after the meeting” that can spark a new idea or project or facilitate important facetime with stakeholders. Going forward, employers will need to adopt new ways of replicating these impromptu connections between remote and in-office employees.

Source: Doodle

Promoting career development 

One area many people are looking forward to getting back to is in-person mentoring and coaching opportunities. According to a recent survey by Doodle, 49 percent of employees say they aren’t getting enough training, coaching and mentoring to advance their careers in these uncertain times. As workers transition back to the office, employers will have to establish regular in-person career development opportunities, create a strong feedback culture, and structure peer training for employees. New people entering the workforce during the pandemic require an even more specialized training structure that focuses on important in-person and osmosis learning that is crucial to career development.

"Career growth and crises aren't usually the most amenable bedfellows," says Jared Blank, CMO of Doodle. "Employees tend to hold back on discussing their goals out of fear - of losing their job, of being seen as ungrateful and of rocking the boat. At the same time, organizations tend to buckle down in crisis mode and focus their energy, resources and budgets into keeping the business afloat. But it's precisely why professional development is absolutely critical now. Not only can career development empower employees to reach their full potential and achieve their long-term career goals, it can also help organizations combat that always-looming challenge of employee turnover."

Applying what we’ve learned during the pandemic and adopting new in-office habits will be an ongoing process for the foreseeable future. As companies settle into new routines, other challenges will arise and new practices will need to be implemented to meet employee needs as well as business needs. 


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