The Importance of Trust in Returning to the Office
Over the last seven months of Shelter-In-Place I, my friends, and the rest of the Werqwise team have had many conversations with people at all levels in businesses of all sizes. From the single person startup to the largest Fortune 100 firms, college grads to the CEO, there seems to be one big disconnect. People are trying to work hard, they are committed to doing their best, they miss being around other people and they like the idea of getting back to the office and a sense of normality. Most business leaders and entrepreneurs miss being around their teams and have witnessed firsthand the enormous impact of having teams working remotely full time, they want people to be back together at least some of the time. Yet the reality in San Francisco is that very few teams are following through on this and returning. So, what really is the issue and why is there such a substantial disconnect?
Looking at large organizations, over the last three months Big tech has been investing heavily in new offices, new spaces for people to come together. Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google and more have all announced large offices leases or purchases. These are companies that expect to attract the most talented people and are willing to fight for them. They do all they can to create the environments that maximize their potential, that bring people together and create sparks of innovation. Google’s Sundar Pichar joined other leaders when he said “We firmly believe that in-person, being together, having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems and create something new so we don’t see that changing.” Banks, in particular the trading divisions, have been outspoken in their desire to return, citing competition, team spirit and onboarding as key to the success of their business and ineffective when people work from home.
Although less covered in the media, the impact on small and medium sized businesses is arguably even more severe. These are often firms that do not have the financial capacity or access to capital to survive downturns in performance, innovation and creativity in the way that the largest firms do. It is clear that businesses want and need people to return to the office, and in many cases their survival depends on it. So why are they not telling people to return? Fear?
People themselves want to return to the office, in September Google published an internal survey that showed only 10% of their team wanted to work from home permanently full time in the long term (down from 20% in May). The mental health impact of working from home is beyond doubt. According to the Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index that surveyed over 6,000 information and first-line workers across eight countries, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, India, Singapore, the UK, and the US. Found:
- The pandemic increased burnout at work – in some countries more than others.
- Causes of workplace stress differ for Firstline and remote workers.
- Six months in there are more communications and fewer boundaries.
- No commute may be hurting, not helping, remote worker productivity.
- Studies show meditation can fight burnout and stress during the workday.
31% of US workers have increased feelings of burnout with the average working day increasing by 25%. The biggest issue being a lack of separation between work and life followed closely by feeling disconnected from co-workers.
Research indicates that 75% of U.S. workers have struggled at work due to anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and other recent world events. 4 out of 5 workers find it hard to “shut off” in the evenings.
- Over half of respondents have taken a “mental health day” since they started working from home, due to the pandemic
- 97% say that vacation days while working from home are important for “recharging” – another way of saying “mental health”
- Half of the respondents cite that their sleep patterns have been interrupted due to COVID-19, and 45% say they feel less healthy mentally while working from home.
People miss their co-workers, the social connections, sense of community, the ability to bounce ideas back and forth, and drive innovation. They miss the experience and productivity of being in the office. They miss out on being considered for promotions and have less chance of being able to get their choice of the projects. New team members miss out on creating relationships that can have a huge impact on their career. However, none of this means that people want to work from their HQ office full time, every day. The hybrid, dispersed work solution has been the clear answer that the more forward-looking firms implemented many years ago. But why are people not returning to the office and pushing management and their employers to return to the office? Fear?
If you have stepped out on the street in San Francisco since March, you know that it has turned into a ghost town. Sure, things have got busier since Labor Day as more people started to return to work but BART ridership is still down 88%. Retail, coffee shops, sandwich shops and restaurants continue to be devastated. Many will never recover. Without a vibrant retail and F&B scene cities lose their biggest attraction. The impact on city finances follows closely, jobs are lost, taxes drop, small and medium sized businesses collapse with the impact felt even more severely on the high-risk communities. It is clearly in the city’s interests to get people back to offices, to slow the destruction of the economy and support the smaller businesses that are the foundation of the society. So why are city authorities not encouraging people to get back to the office?
City governments and many businesses have worked hard to create safe environments, with face covering policies, distancing, increasing air flow, cleaning protocols, temperature checks and touchless solutions. Moving teams to shifts, extensive testing and tracing as a community, many things have been done and continue to be done to create the safest possible environment. But it doesn’t appear to be enough. For many of the working population the evolution of treatments has cut the death rate to an incredibly low level compared to six months ago. Combined with safety measures, wearing mask and looking after those who are in at-risk groups, the risks are far lower. The issue is, however, more than fear. We have lost trust. Businesses don’t trust employees not to sue them, liability is the one key factor that keeps companies from getting people back to work. People don’t trust their employers to do the right thing and enforce the right rules. People don’t trust their co-workers to do the right thing and keep everyone safe. Perhaps cities no longer trust their populations to behave in the right ways and not overwhelm hospitals (let’s not forget that was the reason for the lockdown in the first place). Quite simply, trust is broken, and it is critical to our physical mental and financial health that we rebuild it.
In time we will, no doubt, have treatments for COVID-19, a new one was approved earlier this week, and a vaccine. Given the focus of many incredible people and organizations both will probably come sooner rather than later. These will further reduce the risk of us and our loved ones being severely impacted by this virus yet there will still be risks. What these therapeutics and vaccines will not do is rebuild trust.
So how do we even start to rebuild trust in the middle of a pandemic? We at Werqwise are fortunate enough to have an academic advisory board comprised of world leading experts on the workplace. This multi-disciplinary team covering economics, entrepreneurship, , psychology, burnout, healthy workplaces and contaminants helps us, and through us, our members navigate these difficult times as well as using real research to develop the workplace of the future. In a recent paper by Dr Cristina Banks, she spoke of the creation of bubbles, where people have a contract with each other committing to safe behaviors. It reminded me of the early days of the lock down where we had to work out how to stay safe and stay open. As a leader of a business that provides services to Essential Businesses, some of which are at the front of the fight against COVID we had to remain open to support these businesses and provide the infrastructure that allows non-essential businesses to continue to operate with their workforce working from home. We also had to keep ourselves, our families and our team safe. In March, my co-founder and COO and I spoke about our lives outside work and came up with a set of rules so we could continue to safely interact. Many of the rest of the senior team here at Werqwise chose to join and agree to a similar set of rules. Over time the broader team bought in to it and came back together. Paramount on making this successful is communication; we are human beings, and it is natural to make mistakes. When someone made a mistake and strayed from the rules, they immediately informed the others, isolated and got tested. Having the rules and ensuring there is no fear of being punished, suffering or thought badly of allowed us to trust each other.
Businesses, people, governments are, surprisingly, all broadly aligned around the same goal. Keep the vulnerable safe, get people back together and rebuild the economy. By rebuilding trust through pods and agreed behaviors we can do that. It is up to each and every one of us, for our own good and the health of each other, our cities and our country we need to rebuild now.