Workers across the country and around the world have spent much of the past year working from home, at a distance to one another, adapting to Zoom screens rather than conference rooms. As we move toward reopening and a return to the office, leaders may face challenges helping workers adjust to the changes that come with a return to normal. Employees that found a specific routine or rhythm during remote work may have found it initially difficult to adjust to working from home but later may find it jarring to uproot their work styles.
Author Sumit Paul has dubbed the issue “Covid Stockholm syndrome.” Stockholm syndrome is a term used to describe the effects of trauma in captivity on hostages or abuse victims. As time passes in the custody of the abuser, victims come to identify with the captor, developing an emotional or psychological connection. Stockholm syndrome, which takes its name from the expressions of sympathy directed by a group of hostages toward the bank robbers that captured them for six days in Sweden, is a form of the complex human response to trauma and difficult circumstances.
Of course, the pandemic was not a kidnapper or an abuser but a virus, and workers are not expressing sympathies with the virus as a growing number of people are vaccinated. However, the extended period of lockdown and remote work has led many people to become increasingly accustomed to staying away from others and keeping out of the office. Despite evidence of the protection provided by vaccines, people may still feel anxious and unsafe about leaving the house or returning to more crowded environments, even when everyone involved is vaccinated. People may be tempted to keep Covid precautions in place even when they appear scientifically unnecessary because the threat of renewed viral spread may spark so much fear.
Post-pandemic recovery comes with its own challenges
On the other hand, the practical changes that came with the pandemic may pose other challenges. Even when workers are ready to go back to the office, they may have become accustomed to remote work. Some things may have been done more easily without all of the in-person meetings, and they may not want to return to a typical in-office job. Other workers moved their homes, especially when they faced spiraling costs of living, pandemic-related work slowdowns or challenges that made urban living undesirable.
Millions of workers moved out of state during the pandemic, consultants say. And some of the changes that came with the pandemic appear to be permanent. Workers weren’t the only ones to make big decisions about their locations. Some companies closed or downsized their physical offices, especially as a cost-cutting measure during the hardest parts of the pandemic. When remote work was functioning well for everyone, there seemed little purpose to continuing to expend resources on office space rather than other essentials.
In fact, one of the best ways that leaders can support employees in adjusting as the workplace returns to a post-Covid rhythm is to keep the changes that worked in place. Some staff members may be able to go fully remote, while a more flexible work-from-home policy may be a good choice for other companies. Managers may wish to consider what parts of the in-person experience are most important for their employees and which can easily be replaced by keeping the remote work status quo in place.
Remote work may be here to stay
One survey of office workers found that nearly one-third want to keep working remotely throughout the week, even once the pandemic ends. A majority of office workers said that they would like to have at least some remote time, even if they spent one or two days a week in the office. This is something that managers, owners, and employees often see differently. Over two-thirds of executives believed that having workers in the office for most of the week was important to maintain company culture, with slightly fewer seeing the same as necessary to increase productivity.
Many workers who have already established a reputation for productivity during the pandemic may be able to keep their remote employment. However, newer hires and trainees are likely to require more time in the office to ensure that they have the support they need to reach their full potential on the job. Here, flexibility is an important concept for workplace leaders to keep in mind. The right solution for one person or department may not be the right solution for every employee or sector of the company. By carefully evaluating each situation on a case-by-case basis, leaders can craft a balanced response that supports workers in returning to their job.
Managers may also want to keep the value of remote work in mind when considering new hires in the future; they may cast a broader net, reaching candidates that are far more widely spread, and offering full-time or majority-remote work may win over valuable candidates who thrive in the more independent environment of remote work. Of course, loneliness can carry its own concerns, both for office productivity and for workers’ emotional well-being.
Flexible approaches bring the best of both worlds.
For better or for worse, Covid has changed the way employees and leaders think about the workplace. Of course, not all workers want a fully remote office space; some may value in-person social workplace connections and the physical space to interact. Most workplaces may want to think creatively about how they can combine the best aspects of remote work with the collegiality that is often inspired by in-person interactions.
This approach can mean scheduling office time as quality time — so that when employees are in the office, their conversations are meaningful. You don’t want to waste that valuable in-person time on matters that could have been resolved on email or Zoom.
At the same time, leaders do not have to go it alone in solving their employees’ concerns about changes in the workplace. Open conversations on this matter, both in-person and virtual, can foster a sense of community as well as resolve some of the “Stockholm syndrome” that some workers experience. If leadership encourages a sense of safety, openness, and responsiveness, workers are more likely to address the issues and concerns that matter to them. Most leaders have not been exempt from the effects of the pandemic, and an empathetic approach can highlight the connections that have sometimes been fragmented by the realities of the pandemic and a lack of social interaction.
Moving beyond the pandemic is an important milestone—not only for our businesses but for society as a whole. However, the effects of the past year and a half have left almost everyone affected by its repercussions, whether due to personal trauma associated with Covid itself or the changes the virus has brought to the workplace and our communities. Workplace leaders have an important role to play in inspiring a new, post-Covid future in the workplace, that takes the best lessons of the period and moves forward with them while providing space to support workers dealing with “Covid Stockholm syndrome” and other effects of the pandemic. By leading with empathy and flexibility and developing new approaches to remote work, managers can effectively chart a new course toward a productive and positive future.