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The other reason not everyone is rushing back to the office

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Had the COVID-19 pandemic ended sooner, there’s every possibility that office life would have returned to ‘normal.’

In 2021, we were all hoping to go back to the office. Today, office workers are putting their foot down en masse and refusing to return. Having adapted to remote work and proving themselves capable of being productive, office workers are demanding more flexibility in where and how they work.

Publicly at least, the rationale focuses on aspects of work/life balance such as commuting or managing child care.

I think there’s another reason a lot of people don’t want to go back to the office: they don’t actually enjoy working alongside their colleagues five days a week.

In June 2022, JLL published its global Workforce Preferences Barometer, revealing some interesting trends around the evolving needs and preferences of workers:

We’ve known for a long time that not everyone is designed to thrive in the traditional workplace. The typical office environment, and the way work is expected to be done, is designed for those with a high capacity for interpersonal interaction – open office environments, constant meetings, discussions, collaborations. The traditional workplace is a socialite’s dream and a recluse’s nightmare.

Add to this mix the complex interpersonal and political dynamics that accompany all human relationships. Is it any surprise a lot of us just want to stay home?

About 50 per cent of the population falls on the extrovert side of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Extroverts are energized by interactions with others and, on average, struggle most adjusting to remote work. Managers, who generally design work and workplaces, are significantly more likely, by an extremely wide margin, to be extroverts. This group is also trying to persuade the rest of us back to the office.

The other half of the population are introverts who don’t get their energy through social interaction. They find too much of it to be stressful and exhausting. To recharge their batteries, they need to be able to withdraw from the fray.

As someone who falls on this side of the spectrum, I found the pandemic to be nothing short of liberating. No more networking events!

Remote interactions tend to be less frequent, shorter and more focused on the task at hand. All those behaviours that combine to create a ‘group dynamic’ when people are in the room together – body language, sideways glances, where people choose to sit – don’t translate well on video. While endless Zoom meetings can be tedious and tiring, they’re rarely as interpersonally stressful or emotionally exhausting as all those in-person gatherings.

I don’t think it’s just the commute, the flexibility or the desire for more work/life balance keeping some of us away from the office. I think it’s also the desire for fewer, simpler interactions with our colleagues and collaborators and less exposure to the demanding and challenging dynamics inherent in the workplace.

A hybrid model – time split between home and office – is one way employers are responding to return-to-office reluctance. It’s a compromise that may satisfy no one in the end.

I would encourage managers to think beyond how many days workers should be in the office. They might ask themselves a different question: How might work and the workplace be redesigned to better accommodate the style, needs and preferences of all of us, regardless of whether we’re in-office or remote?

Instead of trying to lure staff back to the office with the promise of more interaction and collaboration, perhaps we need to promise them less.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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Rebecca Schalm

Rebecca holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has assisted organizations for over 25 years in building talent capability that enables business strategy. Prior to founding Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., she was SVP & Chief Human Resources Officer of Finning International Inc. and spent over 10 years at RHR International LLP.

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