Making that back-to-the-office hybrid actually work won’t be easy

This time it feels real. The Great Return is upon us, as a growing number of companies set dates for employees to come back into the office in the weeks ahead.

And it’s going to be messy. Much like the reopening of the economy, employers may find reopening the office a lot harder than it was to send everyone home in March 2020. The pandemic has fundamentally changed our relationship with work and the workplace.

Sure, some people can’t wait to return to their cubicles or windowed offices. Others would prefer to work from home every day forever. But many of us are demanding the best of both worlds — the much-hyped hybrid model, which might be the hardest one for employers to pull off.

Emotions will run the gamut during what promises to be an elongated reentry period, from elation to ambivalence to deep dislocation. That’s something employers should acknowledge. They need to give people the time and space to adjust. For many office workers, this will be the most dramatic pivot since the beginning of the pandemic.

When Sari Kalin thinks about returning to the office at Liberty Mutual in April, she calls it a “both and” situation. The Boston insurance giant has 33,000 employees in the United States, including about 5,000 in Massachusetts, and anticipates having a variety of arrangements depending on business needs — in-person, remote, and hybrid.

“I’m excited to go back to the office and it will be a little stressful to have to get up and get out the door when I haven’t had to do that,” said Kalin, who is assistant director of health and well-being strategy at Liberty Mutual.

Yep, that pretty much captures how a lot of us feel.

But the transition will be unsettling for another reason: We have to get used to being in the presence of co-workers again. We’ve lost something working from home for two years ― little to no physical interaction with colleagues. But we’ve also become accustomed to relative seclusion. Are we to interact in the gulp, flesh? The anxiety may be especially high for new hires who have yet to set foot in the office.

“There is a lot of stress associated with isolation,” said Danna Mauch, chief executive of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health. “That stress with remote working leads to a deterioration of workplace culture.”

poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association last spring found that nearly two-thirds of people working from home felt isolated or lonely at least some of the time. Many also indicated they had trouble shutting off their job at the end of the day. The elusive work-life balance had become a blur.

And while bosses have marveled at employees’ high level of productivity during the pandemic, burnout has been an issue. According to a December survey of 6,369 users of Boston-based meQuilibrium, which provides digital mental health support, about one in four employees showed signs of extreme burnout.

“We’re really in this moment of a perfect storm of disconnection,” said Dr. Adam Perlman, cofounder and chief medical officer of meQuilibrium, which markets its platform as an employee benefit to organizations. “You may be able to keep business operations going in a virtual world, but it’s not the best solution in the long run. Finding the right balance between virtual and in-person is really the challenge every company finds themselves in now.”

Of course, this is an affliction felt only in certain sectors. Employees from health care to education to retail haven’t had the luxury of working from home all this time. Only a segment of us — perhaps best defined by anyone working in an office tower — have been able to extol the virtues of remote work, with the most life-changing one being the elimination of dreaded commutes.

What we don’t talk about as much is the fallout from so much WFH. Beyond isolation and burnout, collaboration suffers, and younger workers and new hires aren’t able to get the same level of mentoring and training they’d gain from an in-person experience. Those of us who have to take care of young children or older relatives while working from home are also carrying a heavier mental load, even as children and relatives may have benefited from our unexpected presence.

“Remote work is still a luxury not available to many workers, but for those who have the option, it’s presented some problems,” said Debra Lerner, director of the Program on Health, Work and Productivity at Tufts Medical Center. She develops workplace mental health support programs and advises organizations on employee mental health. “What we’re seeing now is employers and managers, in particular, trying to catch up and trying to figure out what works and what works well.”

At Liberty Mutual, the company has been mindful about the mental health challenges posed by the pandemic. Last April, CEO David Long hosted a virtual fireside chat on the topic and employees opened up about their own struggles. The insurer said use of its employee assistance program in the United States grew to 15 percent of the workforce in 2021, up from 12 percent in 2019; nearly three-quarters of the users in 2021 were first-time users.

Since 2018, Liberty Mutual has offered a free online stress management program but enrollment doubled during the pandemic.

Kalin said Liberty Mutual managers have been trained to lead with empathy and offer mental health support as people start to commute again.

“We acknowledge the mix of emotions,” said Kalin. “We will keep listening to our employees and understand how they are feeling.”

For many employers, perfecting the hybrid model will occupy the next phase of working in a pandemic.

From Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj Choudhury’s perspective, too many employers already are going about it the wrong way. He has been studying the future of work for a decade, and chafes at the idea of the new normal being about lopping a day or two off of the traditional five-day work week.

“That has been the knee jerk reaction,” said Choudhury. “I really want to caution against that.”

Instead, his research indicates the most successful hybrid model centers around being in a physical office based on a percentage of time ― like 25 percent ― not a number of days. Such an approach creates the most flexibility, Choudhury said. He advocates for schedules to be set team by team, not company wide; some teams may determine that coming in once a week is the most effective way to work together, while others may decide meeting up one week a month is better.

Choudhury said that when people can work from anywhere, the physical office needs to have purpose, such as for mentoring, deep collaboration, or team meals.

“It’s not work bringing us back into the office, it’s social interaction,” said Choudhury, adding that being in the office should be about creating “happy memories.”

Still, he worries that employers aren’t being thoughtful enough about how to reimagine the way we work.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a new rhythm,” said Choudhury. “Once that new rhythm is set, it’ll be hard to change it again. So why not create a rhythm that is really, really the best practice?”

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