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Wharton School Press  |  September 1, 2021

Returning to the Office?

Here Are Some Clues to What a "New Normal" Could Look Like

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How we work has undoubtedly changed as a result of COVID-19.

Research shows that socialization is an essential function of a well-oiled office machine. And while restrictions have kept us safe, social-distancing measures have at times left both workers and the fate of the office in gloomy conditions. However, many companies are nearing a return to the office, at least in some form. Proper reflection and preparations will ease the shift toward a “new normal.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Wharton School Press published several books that offer insights into some of the pros and cons of remote work, as well as how employees can navigate a new office world.

What have employees enjoyed about working remotely?

In The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We All Face, Wharton School professor Peter Cappelli acknowledges that work-life balance can be “elusive.” He writes that increased flexibility and cost reductions seem to be remote work’s primary successes.

With extended periods of remote work, employees spend less time and money commuting. Cappelli also points out that permanent remote work would allow employees to relocate to more affordable or convenient areas.

Another bonus: heightened autonomy for employees.

In Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience, Paula Davis, founder of the Stress and Resilience Institute, outlines the benefits of “decision-making discretion,” which became more frequent during the pandemic. She writes that a decline in pressure and micromanagement that resulted from remote work has helped more curious and engaged employees.

remote work’s limits

The physical office still has its advocates, who point to the different strengths it offers both employers and employees. One of those strengths is physical collaboration and the ability to more easily support different employee and team needs.

Burnout has also become more common. For instance, in Beating Burnout at Work, Davis lists emotional exhaustion and inefficacy as leading symptoms of burnout. Not only have these complications been exacerbated by the pandemic, but the tools to combat workplace burnout, like social trust and support, are also more difficult to replicate in a virtual environment.

Cappelli notes that social relationships are “the single most important factor” keeping workers at an organization. Elements like a lack of genuine eye contact during video conferencing has a negative impact on workers. What used to be a subtle social interaction has become a significant obstacle to workplace trust and resilience.

Remote teamwork has also made cohesion difficult. Wharton School professor Michael Platt, the director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, tackles the intrinsic connection between a cohesive work environment and productivity in his book, The Leader’s Brain: Enhance Your Leadership, Build Stronger Teams, Make Better Decisions, and Inspire Greater Innovation with Neuroscience. He cites an ongoing study that found physical and neurological synchrony were connected.

“Just seeing and hearing (and possibly smelling!) your fellow teammates helps generate physiological synchrony,” Platt writes.

Returning to the office will look different

Cappelli foresees the likely implementation of “hybrid” models, a mix of on-site and remote work. He also suggests that leaders create a clear plan for their employees’ return to soften a potentially difficult transition. And he argues that companies need to remain flexible to see what works and what doesn’t — and be ready to adapt.

Employers should be prepared to have conversations with employees about everything: What do you miss about the office? How was the company financially impacted by COVID-19? How comfortable are you with returning to the office? Transparency will help build trust and “humanize” the workplace, he writes.

And an uptick in socialization could yield benefits in a number of areas. As Davis points out, loneliness is a large contributor to depression and burnout.

Finally, The Future of the Office proposes that employers have the unique opportunity to re-establish or alter what type of organization they aim to be. It is as if remote work placed a pause on office culture. So, as employees return, employers should take advantage of this  opening to create a more successful work environment, keeping in mind the lessons learned from the virtual office.

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