The Great Return vs The Great Reluctance
Potential Project Singapore and AIA Singapore are partnering to offer the RETURN, RESTORE & REBALANCE program to help people navigate our Return to a changed workplace, Restore mental clarity, and Rebalance our mental energy. Complimentary for all AIA Singapore Corporate Solutions customers and members. Details and registration: https://www.aia.com.sg/en/employee-benefits/building-mental-resilience.html
Just when Singaporeans began celebrating the omicron threat receding, with restaurants and hitherto empty downtown offices filling up, the warning appeared: A new wave of infections from sub-variants of concern is likely to peak in July through August 2022.
So where does that leave us? Are we ready to go back to the office full-time, as many of our bosses would like? Or should we dig in, reiterate our wish to continue working from home (WFH)?
It’s no wonder that the domestic and international media have put the spotlight on what has been dubbed, “The Great Renegotiation”.
These past two years have been fraught with fear of catching covid, seeing loved ones succumbed to the pandemic, then catching the milder omicron variant, pulling through with dreadful self-isolation and continued self-monitoring. Truth be told, most of us want to forget this recent past and fast forward to the future!
However, the structural changes in employment are for real. Without a doubt, adapting to a post-pandemic “new normal” is now a must. This applies to employees as well as to employers.
Take the case of Cheryl (not her real name). She used to work as a book-keeper at a small accounting firm, servicing various small private companies.
With WFH, she adapted to the cramped and noisy family circumstances at home. She clearly preferred returning to the office and eagerly waited for the public health authorities to give the green light. But the economic slowdown took its toll on her employer - when the firm folded up last year, Cheryl and her colleagues all lost their livelihoods.
Fortunately for Cheryl, she found a new job soon after, in the food and beverage sector. She was relieved. But work at her new office has been a tremendous slog– a huge backlog of accounts from the pandemic months of lockdown, tidying up inactive bookkeeping for outlets that had shuttered down, many from over a year ago.
WFH Singapore residents who were fortunate to retain their jobs throughout the pandemic, like millions worldwide, also now wonder if they should risk unemployment by insisting on continued WFH. In several countries, surveys have shown that as many as a third of the total workforce prefer to continue working from home.
But the future also looks very uncertain. The economic outlook has suffered a further setback from Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on 24 Feb 2022, and the ensuing war there. Further disruptions to the world economy and a global food security issue loom ahead. There is widespread concern over the rising costs of living.
Many large companies that had planned to bring all their workers back to their main offices have scaled back on their initial return-to-office policy. This trend can also be seen here in Singapore. As companies respond to these new challenges, hybrid work models vary widely.
During these past two years, Potential Project, a research-led leadership development consultancy, has conducted extensive study of employees and their managers. We saw that many corporates found it difficult to do hard things in a human way.
Hence, we believe that the way forward is for company managers to be equipped with the right skills to lead their teams. Leaders must care more about the well-being of their staff. In other words, hybrid or no hybrid, the way forward is to have work cultures that embrace wise and compassionate leaders.
Wise and compassionate leaders develop awareness and show a caring presence in a “here and now” way. They also demonstrate courage over comfort, and they often speak with caring candour, in the interest of transparency.
There can be less reliance on the videoconferencing platform with more in-person interactions. As human beings, we definitely find this more appealing, and less taxing mentally. We often yearn for a shared reality from interacting with our teammates and colleagues, through casual chit-chats, whether at the office pantry or during our lunch breaks. This is borne out in Potential Project’s research, where we found that a shared reality with a co-worker contributed to greater work meaningfulness, organisational commitment, and overall job satisfaction.
TIPS FOR RETURNING TO THE OFFICE
Manage your inner space:
- Don’t overschedule yourself. Allow yourself some open, non-task time, and space to readjust.
- Set an intention for connection. Reconnect with colleagues.
- Get more sleep. A good night’s sleep will be key to improving your interactions and reducing your risk of burnout. (You can find more tips here.)
Create spaces that nurture connection and collaboration:
- Talk! Our research shows that when there is clarity about the office strategy and plan, especially concerning hybrid or other work arrangements, employees have 36% more pleasant feelings about being back in the office.
- Organise schedules by key moments. Plan better for meetings during in-the-office days, such as at the start of a project when creative thinking is most critical, or when major changes are being announced – these in-person cues and body language will help communication.
- Design spaces for connection. Environment matters; structuring office settings for different ways of interacting helps.
- Make time for just being. The feel-good hormones that we seek, and need as social beings, means that you do your team a favour by allowing for agenda-free social interactions!
 Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, Compassionate Leadership – How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, Harvard Business Review Press, 2022.