The head of Slack, one of the handful of messaging platforms that has enabled remote and hybrid working to flourish, says offices should be spaces for workers to “come together and actually enjoy themselves”.
Speaking with the BBC, chief executive Stewart Butterfield said office time was particularly important for young people starting their career.
"The best thing we can do is create a comfortable environment for people to come together and actually enjoy themselves," he told the broadcaster.
"It's hard to imagine starting your career fresh out of university, and not going to the office, and not being able to meet all these people in person.
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"But I think the majority of knowledge workers, over time, will settle into some sort of pattern of regular intervals of getting together."
Butterfield also said Slack, which currently operates a hybrid policy, had a pre-pandemic office set-up that stood in stark contrast to its current situation.
He told the BBC that much of Slack’s office space had been “dedicated to kind of factory-farm, battery-chicken housing for people to use their desks all by themselves and listen to their headphones, and not talk to anyone else".
Slack’s chief exec may be talking up the benefits of a strong office culture, but the firm’s very own research has found that almost two in five workers are anxious about returning to work, as life starts to transition back to some semblance of normality.
The 1,000-strong survey of workers found that many appeared to be concerned about the impact that returning to the office would have on work-life balance.
During the pandemic, a separate European study by Unispace found that more than four-fifths (86%) of employees had a better work-life balance when working from home.
Whether this meant spending more time with loved ones or having more down time, it is clear that a portion of staff are concerned that this will diminish when returning to the office.
Moreover, Slack’s survey found that almost half of survey respondents said that hybrid working was best for their mental health. Despite this, just one in four said that they are able to choose if and when they work from the office.
Additionally, half of the survey respondents blamed the cost of travel and food for their reluctance to go back.
Understanding what staff could be anxious about
Slack’s data suggested that losing a good work-life balance and the impact on mental health are top concerns for some when returning to the office. But this will unlikely be the only reason behind these anxieties.
In a previous interview with HR Grapevine in 2021, Vicki Field, an Independent HR Practitioner, said that as people professionals, the function will need to understand that everyone would be experiencing different anxieties when offices do re-open.
She explained: “The first thing is to try and understand each person’s anxiety, and work to mitigate it.”
This could be fears around catching coronavirus on the job or the cost of embarking on a commute to work again among other things. For example, a 2020 study from the Resolution Foundation think tank found that more than one-third of workers were concerned about catching coronavirus on the job.
Additionally, MoneySupermarket figures found that lockdown homeworkers saved an average of £216 per month on commuting since March 2020. Therefore, it is possible that staff could be concerned about the financial impact of commuting once again.
How can HR manage back-to-office anxiety?
After identifying some of the possible things that could be causing staff anxiety regards heading back to the office, HR should consider how they can help.
Brigitte Weaver, Senior Associate, Katten Muchin Rosenman UK LLP, shared some insights about how HR and employers can help manage back-to-work anxiety, with open dialogue and 1-2-1 catch ups seemingly playing a big part.
Weaver explained: “We have seen our clients deal with these issues in lots of creative ways but it always centres around continuous and open dialogue between both the employee and the employer about their various concerns. Some HR teams are having weekly 1-2-1 catch ups with employees who are struggling.”
Giving staff access to trained Mental Health First Aiders could also help with alleviating some employee anxiety. She continued: “In our office, we trained 14 Mental Health First Aiders from all parts of the business so people can hopefully find someone to reach out to on a more informal basis rather than having to go through more formal channels if they don’t feel comfortable.
“On a case-by-case basis, we have also allowed particularly vulnerable or anxious staff to travel at non-peak times. This also assists with the cost of tickets as season ticket prices have not adjusted to the new working cycles.”
Ivan Harding, CEO at Applaud, said that “businesses have to accept that employees do not want to go back to old working ways if they want to avoid a wellbeing crisis”.
Drawing on research carried out by the company itself – which found that just under two-thirds of UK staff support the idea of a four-day week – Harding said its one example of employees “actively engaged with new working environments and closed off to the idea of a full office return”.
He continued: “Business leaders should always actively ask their staff how they want to work and tailor policies to suit preferences.
“Any forceful behaviour from employers will not only impact employee wellbeing, but it will only drive them to seek new roles that match the flexibility they’re after.”