Returning to work in person after a year and a half remotely improves socialization, but the work environment must be monitored to avoid stress
With the arrival of September, not only have the holidays of the majority of the population ended, a process that some companies had already started has also accelerated, encouraged by the improvement of the coronavirus pandemic, and which thousands of employees are facing with a mixture of excitement and anxiety: the return to face-to-face work. If in the second quarter of 2020, in full confinement, 16.2% of Spaniards worked from home, between January and March of this year that percentage had already fallen to 11.2%.
Now it’s time to leave that corner of the home that suddenly became a workplace to return to an office that, surely, will not feel the same as a year and a half ago: the need to wear a mask, the screens that many have installed to Avoiding infections and different hygiene measures will facilitate a safe return, but fear of the coronavirus persists in a minority of employees that an Ekilu survey estimates at 36%.
However, experts agree that going back to the office has positive aspects. “At home we have changed meal and rest times, and we have tended to establish more interruptions that may have extended the day. We have lost personal contact, especially people who live alone and, in many cases, we want to return to face-to-face work, “says Pedro Ribes, president of the Spanish Association for People Management and Development (Aedipe), which brings together those responsible From Human Resources. A study by Ipsos supports this last statement: in Spain the percentage of workers who flatly refuse to work constantly from home (35%) is double that of those who flee the office (18%).
Recovering the interaction of the staff is paramount. “We can work without physical contact, but we lose emotional aspects, often intangible, which have a decisive influence on the activity,” adds Ribes, who also points out the advantage that the office gives when incorporating new people, since remotely ” there is a barrier that limits integration and adherence to the project ”. Ángel Elías, former dean of the Faculty of Labor Relations and Social Work at the University of the Basque Country, is of the same opinion: «We are social beings and the workplace contributes to a socialization that technology cannot replace because we need more contact near”.
“Conversations at the coffee machine are necessary, especially to check people’s mood. In video conferencing it is easier to hide problems, while face-to-face contact is always warmer. This is especially important for managers, ”adds Jon Segovia, professor of People Management and Change Management at Deusto Business School. “We have much more capacity to adapt to change than we think, and now it is only a matter of resuming habits that are not so old,” he adds.
In addition, Miguel Ángel Mencías, coordinator of the Work Psychology Commission of the College of Psychologists of Bizkaia, emphasizes that, “many times, people do not have the adequate space to work at home or the optimal family conditions, so the return to the office can be beneficial in those cases. From a gender perspective, Elías believes that teleworking has been an extra burden for women, since on many occasions it has added tasks. “We are going towards equality, but we still have a long way to go to achieve it. For this reason, we have to be vigilant so that models such as telework do not delve into inequality, ”says the professor.
All interviewees agree that returning to the office does not have to be traumatic. But Mencías recommends “agreeing on the return with the employees, promoting a healthy environment, increasing mental health surveillance and establishing mechanisms to avoid interpersonal conflicts”, because the psychologist warns that there are certain risks. “The consumption of anxiolytics and analgesics has increased during the pandemic, and has been more pronounced among those who have resumed face-to-face work,” he says.
On the other hand, a Limeade survey in the United States and different European countries concludes that the lower flexibility of face-to-face work causes some anxiety to 71%, and that 68% are demotivated by long commutes from home to office. In our country, these consequences are less important: the Ekilu survey shows that only 46% fear losing the balance between personal and professional life or recovering bad eating habits, while, at the opposite extreme, an Indeed report highlights that 58% want to reconnect with their colleagues.
A new mixed model
Experts flee from generalizations and emphasize that each case has its peculiarities. But, in Ribes’ opinion, with teleworking “we have eliminated travel and have had more personal time and flexibility that we also value positively and want to maintain.” 67% of Spaniards are now betting on a mixed model that combines face-to-face work and telework.
“It gives the opportunity to take advantage of the positive aspects of each of these models,” Elías says, highlighting the technological skills acquired during the pandemic. The president of Aedipe recommends setting a maximum number of telework days per week, holding frequent face-to-face meetings and establishing initiatives aimed at socializing. “The implementation of teleworking is also an opportunity to establish management criteria and metrics that benefit both parties,” says Ribes.
The office of the future
They all agree that the pandemic, but also factors such as demographics or technological evolution, will leave a different way of working as a legacy. “New ways of providing work appear, such as the concept of digital nomads, but I consider that the natural thing is that their connection to specific projects is based on their specialization and demand”, analyzes Ribes.
Segovia foresees relevant changes in business trips, “because we have realized that they are not always necessary”, and agrees with the rest in predicting a shift towards a work model governed more by objectives and productivity metrics. «The ‘must be there to be’ has become obsolete. The difficulty lies in measuring productivity, especially in teamwork, “he concludes. Of course, the president of Aedipe is clear that teleworking “must be flexible and voluntary and does not have to be permanent.”
On the other hand, the advance of this mixed model also implies a change in the organization of the office itself. Little by little, terms such as ‘hot tables’ will become popular, referring to jobs that are occupied by different employees, in shifts. “We will tend to the use of portable equipment that will allow freedom of location in the office and at the same time facilitate the continuity of the activity in the event of any contingency,” says Ribes, who predicts a wave of digitization to access files from anywhere. “The space for personal use will tend to be reduced, individual offices will disappear and more collaborative and specialized spaces will be established by types of needs,” he advances.
The double edge of technology
Many employees criticize that teleworking has made them slaves and prevents them from disconnecting. The companies, for their part, point out the difficulty in controlling that the remote workforce does not spend the day at the bar. In both cases, technology can be a vital element for the correct management of this new work model. “The sudden introduction of teleworking has made it quite chaotic, but new IT tools facilitate a multitude of processes: from signing in when teleworking, to signing contracts or assigning vacations,” explains Carlos Edo, commercial director of Sesame HR, a Spanish company that develops systems that facilitate the management of human resources from a distance.
In his opinion, these new tools are also key to establishing clear objectives that facilitate the implementation of metrics that serve to assess employee productivity. “Companies that do not adopt teleworking programs suffer more stress,” he says, also pointing to the need for companies to train workers and ensure that they have what they need to telework. “It is not expensive, especially if we take into account that we are going towards smaller offices in which the spaces will be reorganized. Presentism will evolve towards remuneration for objectives ”, he advances.
Ángel Elías, former dean of the Faculty of Labor Relations and Social Work of the University of the Basque Country, points out that “it must be guaranteed that the economic benefits of technology are distributed among the population and that they do not widen the existing digital divide”, since technology can be a double-edged sword. “We advance in technology, but socially we continue with organizational models from past centuries,” he points out.
In addition, technology can also help companies invade the privacy of their employees in an effort to control them. “Obviously, everything can be used well or badly. It can be an element that improves our mental health, because it saves time, provides flexibility, and facilitates repetitive tasks. But we must avoid invasive control measures such as recording the employee’s screen, something that we do not see in Spain “, adds Edo.