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Here's what heading back to the office might look like

caption: After over a year of working remotely, a return to the office raises questions.
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After over a year of working remotely, a return to the office raises questions.

After roughly a year of working from home, Michael Stephens’ first day back in her office felt like the first day of junior high.

“There’s a super nervous energy in terms of what to expect, but also kind of a dread,” Stephens said.

She woke early, didn’t drink much coffee because she was already amped, and chose music that made her feel happy and comforted on her drive in.

Stephens is an event representative with the Seattle Center. When the pandemic hit, her job changed completely. Like many others, Stephens began working remotely.

While she didn’t love that experience, the thought of going back into the office was a nerve-wracking one.

As vaccination efforts continue across the state, with more than five million doses now administered across Washington, more and more people are facing a return to physical work spaces.

Of course, most workers never had the option to work from home during the pandemic. Some lost their jobs, others had jobs that can’t be done remotely.

But for those who were able to retreat to their living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms, the potential return to work can be an exhilarating prospect for some, and an anxiety inducing nightmare for others.

We talked to experts about what the return to work might look like.

When will companies bring workers back into the office?

This depends on the company. Some companies, like Amazon, have signaled that they expect the majority of their workers to be back in the office by early fall. Others, have committed to allowing employees to work remotely permanently. Still others are doing a mix of both.

“A small minority of folks see themselves returning exactly the way they left, and a small minority see themselves continuing to do what many have been doing and working from home five days a week,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.

He said most of the downtown businesses he’s speaking with will adopt a hybrid model.

In terms of timeline, Scholes said there are likely to be a few waves of people returning to downtown businesses.

Some are already back. State guidelines currently allow buildings to be at 50 percent capacity in King County, although that could decrease if the county is rolled back to phase two of the governor’s reopening plan. Others are likely to return in July, and another wave will likely return in the fall, Scholes said.

“We sure hope that by the fall we’ve got a majority of employees back. They might not be back five days a week, 40 hours a week, but we think the office is really going to continue to play a central role because people want to be in a dynamic urban environment,” he said.

A survey conducted by the Downtown Seattle Association shows 18% of survey respondents said they do not expect their workforce to return fully to their worksites until 2022, and 20% do not expect to ever reach that level.

Why do companies want people back in physical buildings?

Michael Johnson is an associate professor of organizational behavior with the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. He said for at least some companies it’s about the creativity and progress that happens when people mix in physical offices.

“A lot of companies talk about creative collisions where people will run into each other casually and then this will allow them to create more. And that’s probably one of the reasons why they want to have people back in the office,” Johnson said.

But Johnson said it might not be as easy as bringing people back to the physical workplace. Research he's done with companies in both the US and China, where more progress has been made on recovery, shows people have changed their communication patterns over the past year. According to Johnson, since working remotely, they’re tending to communicate less across departments and more just with their own teams.

“In China what we’ve found is that when people went back to the workplace they continued those communication patterns. So that siloing did not automatically go back to the way they were before, but rather they stayed siloed even though they were back in the workplace,” Johnson said.

Johnson said it may take concerted effort from organizations to encourage more collaboration.

Why are some companies choosing to keep more people working from home?

Johnson said there are a couple of key advantages to people working remotely, if workers are well equipped to do so. It can be cheaper.

“They don’t have to heat or clean buildings, or provide other on-sire perks,” Johnson said via email.

Flexibility can also have positive effects on worker well-being and work-life balance. A Microsoft report found 73 percent of people surveyed wanted flexible remote work options to continue.

What needs to happen for work spaces to be safe for workers?

According to Marissa Baker, an expert in occupational health, there are three big things that need to be addressed to keep workers safe in the workplace and reduce transmission risks.

1) Ventilation: if windows can’t be open Baker said mechanical ventilation needs to be optimized to bring in as much outside air as possible, and filter it appropriately.

2) Masking will remain important

3) Spreading people out to allow for adequate distancing is also key

A lot of the safety measures that workplaces know are effective have come from evolving iterations that have been implemented in industries where workers have remained on-site.

When those who have been able to work from home return to their physical work spaces, “they will be doing so to an environment where we, at this point, have a pretty good idea of how to protect them and how the virus spreads. Where the workers who have been working [in their workplaces] this whole time, we were learning as we went in the early days,” Baker said.

Baker said she hopes employers are not only paying attention to safety as they bring workers back, but also the many other factors that are affecting their employees and their readiness to return to the workplace, like childcare.

What will a return to the physical office mean for mental health?

Remote work has looked different for different people. So their baseline experience will impact what a return to the office might look like. That’s according to UW psychology professor Jane Simoni.

Simoni said people have done better or worse with remote work for a range of reasons. For instance, those who struggle with attention deficit disorders or social anxiety may be less stressed or more productive at home. On the other end of the spectrum, people may have struggled working from home due to things like an inadequate setup, lack of childcare, or loneliness.

However, Simoni said people are resilient; they weathered lockdowns and they’ll get through a return to working in the office if that’s what lies ahead.

What advice is there for people who may be going back into the office?

Simoni urges people to temper their expectation.

“I would try to encourage folks not to think too much everything’s going to be much worse, or it’s all going to be much better. Because obviously the reality is going to be somewhere in between.”

Simoni also advises that if people can ease back in that may help.

Michael Stephens, the Seattle Center employee, advises people to be gentle with themselves and make room for self-care. Stephens now carves out time for herself in the morning where she didn’t used to before.

Not only is she back in her workplace, but her job is completely altered, instead of putting on events for large crowds she is filming virtual festivals. Stephens said it’s all hit her in ways she didn’t expect.

“It’s just really emotional, where there’s a relief of like, oh my gosh, I can get back to some kind of normalcy. But then there’s almost that kind of PTSD,” Stephens said.

“For me, anyway, it just hit me like a ton of bricks and I cry sometimes when normally you’d just be going about your day. So I think just giving yourself some grace and being gentle with yourself is the best course of action.”

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