5 tips to manage return to the office uncertainty

Alumna and La Trobe academic Dr Jodi Oakman studies how work impacts our health. As we grapple with the idea of being back in the office, she shares her advice for negotiating the return-to-work uncertainty.

Entering a third pandemic year, businesses have accepted that traditional 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday ways of working in an office are, well, done. The adjustment is supported by recent estimates by the Productivity Commission, which reveal that in Australia, as many as 35 per cent of all workers have jobs amenable to working from home.

For many of us, working from home will become part of a hybrid work pattern that combines remote and in-office work, says La Trobe alumna and academic Dr Jodi Oakman.

‘Our current research shows that people want some balance. Being in the office has benefits and most people would like to go back to being in the office some days of the week and at home on others,’ she says.

As an Associate Professor in La Trobe’s School of Psychology and Public Health, Jodi has been researching the mental and physical impacts of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s surveyed participants across Victoria, including many who’ve experienced the longest lockdown in the world.

While people are keen to work in a balanced way, Jodi says, they also feel anxiety about the reality of returning to the office.

‘For many of us, there are uncertainties about how and when we might be allowed to go back into our formal workplaces. And when we do, how are we going to adjust?’ she says in a recent interview.

To help smooth your transition to the hybrid work world, we’ve gathered Jodi’s tips on how to manage the uncertainty.

1. Know what routine works best for you

When the COVID-19 crisis pushed countries into lockdown in 2020, millions of people began working from home for the first time. A recent OECD report shows that in Australia, France and the United Kingdom, 47 per cent of employees worked remotely during the first pandemic year.

In the time since, we’ve gained a further two years of valuable experience working remotely. Jodi suggests we draw on this practice to recognise and implement routines that work best for us.

‘By now, many of us have worked out when and how we operate at our best. Identifying our own ideal working patterns is very important. Putting into place a working schedule at home that harnesses these factors gives us a sense of control, which is an important factor in managing uncertainty,’ Jodi says.

Knowing which work you do best remotely will inform the type of work you allocate to days you’re in the office. If working from home gives you blocks of uninterrupted time, you might create a routine focused on ‘deep’ or ‘asynchronous’ tasks that don’t require others’ input. For example, writing a presentation or project report, answering emails, or entering and analysing data.

By contrast, interdependent work – tasks requiring collaboration, conversation, incidental problem solving or creative brainstorming – might be better assigned to your in-office days, where you can work with colleagues synchronously.

Of course, everyone’s routine will be different. As Jodi says, utilising what you know works best for you is key.

2. Communicate openly with your boss

Once you’ve settled on your optimal routine for hybrid working, you then need to communicate it to your boss.

‘This year will be challenging, and ensuring we have clear, open communication with our managers is a very important part of managing this uncertainty and helping us to stay productive,’ Jodi says.

‘Clear and transparent discussions with supervisors and managers ensure everyone understands what’s possible and, importantly, what’s not.’

To help frame your conversation with your boss, first familiarise yourself with your employer’s flexible work policy. Perhaps your company is among those moving toward a model that makes all roles flex, for example?

Since the pandemic began, Jodi and her colleagues have been urging employers to plan and implement formalised flexible work policies. It seems their advice is being heard.

According to a recent analysis by the Workplace Gender Equality Authority (WGEA), in 2020-21 Australia experienced an upward trend in the number of organisations with formal flexible policies or strategies. The findings show nearly four in five private sector employers have a formal flexible work policy or strategy, with the proportion as high as 94 per cent higher among larger organisations.

3. Skill up in managing people remotely

If you're waiting for the office to reopen to better connect with your team, it’s time to think differently. Working from home isn’t going away, so all people leaders need to upskill to lead teams remotely.

‘A supervisor’s management skills are really important here. They really make a difference to people’s physical and mental health and their ability to work productively,’ Jodi says.

It’s up to managers to set and model new ways of working, so staff who aren’t in the office on any given day aren't isolated from their colleagues. Recent WGEA research suggests a range of approaches to help create productive flexible teams, such as enabling free-flowing information within teams, making sure all staff feel valued and included, and having clear ‘log off’ protocols.

Jodi sees employers as playing a vital role in creating the resources needed to support staff to develop their remote leadership skills. In fact, ‘training and supporting managers to supervise remote teams’ was among five key recommendations she and her research team published for employers, based on a rapid review of 23 studies on the impacts of working from home on individuals.

‘With working from home now more than just a trend, it’s vital we get future policies right,’ she says.

4. Be flexible about office space

COVID-19 has forced businesses to rethink how to make best use of available space. Which is to say, when you do finally get back to the office, your workspace might have changed.

‘Density limits can make it challenging to fit people in, so there’ll be negotiations within businesses about how to best structure space,’ Jodi says.

‘For some jobs open plan is not so much of a problem, for other jobs it is. I doubt we’ll go back to individual offices, though – that would be an expensive way to solve the problem.’

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, many businesses are reconfiguring their office space to maximise flexibility, while keeping health and hygiene front-of-mind.

Your reimagined office might include more hot-desking, with hand sanitiser stations and disinfecting wipes a permanent feature. Or you might return to find desks facing a different way, oriented outward so staff aren’t facing each other.

Try to stay open-minded about office redesigns and practise flexibility. If you’re struggling to embrace a different office layout, it might help to remember that the changes have been made with your safety in mind.

5. Accept the state of flux

If the emergence of new COVID-19 variants has you feeling like you’re on a rollercoaster, you're not alone.

‘We all thought 2022 would see us living in a ‘COVID normal’ environment that might involve combinations of working at home and returning to the office. The Omicron variant has disrupted this, and we’re facing much uncertainty about what the year will look like and our working lives,’ Jodi says.

‘This can be challenging, as any plans we make often need to be changed. It can feel relentless.’

With things still in flux, your feelings about being back in the office are probably changeable, too. On the one hand you might be excited to see your colleagues in person. On the other, you might be worried about whether proper safety precautions are in place.

As difficult as the uncertainty may be, take comfort in knowing others around you are feeling the same way.

About our expert

Alumna Dr Jodi Oakman is an Associate Professor and head of La Trobe’s Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors. She holds a Bachelor of Applied Sciences (Physiotherapy) (1991), a PhD in Occupational Health (2010) and a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Curriculum, Teaching and Learning (2014) from La Trobe University, as well as a Graduate Certificate in Implementation Science from the University of California (2020).