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How to deal with pressure to go back into the office as Covid lockdowns ease

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With workplaces slowly reopening as coronavirus vaccinations gather pace, some people may be feeling the pressure to go back into the office more than they would actually like. 

Many employers have embraced sweeping changes brought in by the coronavirus pandemic, with the majority of people being forced to work from home, as an opportunity to adopt more flexible ways of working going forward.

Technology firms like Spotify and Salesforce are letting employees choose where they want to work from, or if they even want to come back into the office ever again. However, some employers have resisted the idea that this could mark a more permanent shift

And then some companies have policies specifying that workers come into the office at least a certain number of days a week. In theory, this might make workers feel pressured to come into the office more than the specified amount if co-workers are doing so, over similar feelings of guilt that have prompted staff to work longer hours throughout the pandemic.  

But just like those feelings of guilt associated with working remotely, experts say there are ways to overcome this anxiety. 

‘Presenteeism’

Gail Kinman, a visiting professor of occupational health psychology at Birkbeck University of London, told CNBC on a telephone call that “part of the problem is that when people work at home, they often feel that they need to gain trust to show that they’re working.”  

Kinman said less experienced workers, or people who’ve started new jobs during the pandemic, might worry about this more because they’re not yet used to a company’s culture. 

She said it was a similar feeling to “FOMO” (fear of missing out), suggesting that people at home might worry that colleagues going back to work more might have more chance of getting promoted and fear they might be left behind. 

One way to combat this anxiety was to talk to other colleagues to discuss these concerns. 

Ellie Green, a jobs expert at British recruitment site Totaljobs, told CNBC via email that “staff shouldn’t be afraid to instigate conversations with HR departments and bosses to ensure their preferences are heard.” 

She also said it was important for employees to draw clear boundaries between work and home life “to avoid feeling the need to be available at the ping of a (Microsoft) Teams or Slack notification, or caving in to the pressure of presenteeism.” 

Presenteeism can be associated with coming into work when sick. But it can also be interpreted as the culture of workers spending more hours in the office, yet not necessarily being productive the entire time, as a way of putting in “face time” in front of bosses. 

Carina Cortez, chief people officer at Glassdoor, told CNBC over email that it was natural for workers to feel some apprehension about what the “new normal” would look like, given how their expectations around working patterns had changed over the past year. 

She also said it was important for workers feeling under pressure about a return to “make their voice heard and input any way they can to ensure that employers have a broad representation of opinions from staff on returning to the office.” 

At the same time, Cortez said while there were operational and social benefits to spending time in-person with colleagues, if employees did feel pressure to go back into the office more than they’d like, “then maybe it is time to consider employers with a better cultural fit.” 

Janine Chamberlin, U.K. country manager at LinkedIn, told CNBC via email that it was also the responsibility of employers to ensure presenteeism didn’t manifest itself going forward. 

“Businesses that are able to embrace flexible working, building on the trust which has been established during this period of remote working, will not only be able to reduce presenteeism, but end it altogether,” she said.

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