“Achieving normalcy” should not be the primary goal of employers as they strive to create equitable return-to-work arrangements, satisfy work-from-home demands, and optimize productivity and workplace culture. That was a core message of experts participating in a recent webinar sponsored by iOffice + SpaceIQ.

The healthcare crisis has shifted the landscape and instilled different priorities in many workers. The pandemic simultaneously empowered employees, traumatized employees and proved the value of workplace flexibility. When establishing new office protocols, the opinions of employees must be factored heavily in all decision-making, the panel stressed.

The past two years have been overwhelmingly stressful for companies and employees alike, leaving most people feeling fatigued, explained Rachel Druckenmiller, CEO of UNMUTED, a Baltimore-based company focusing on the workplace.

“At the beginning of the year, most thought they were about to return to the office full-time,” she said. “Then their hopes were dashed. It has been a constant state of ups and downs, and people are just worn down right now. Organizations need to figure out the best way to support their employees. One question they can ask is: If everything was just right, what would it look like?”

Stress-reducing spaces

Americans are dealing with stress from every direction including the lingering effects of COVID-19, inflation, the Ukraine crisis and more, said Rex Miller, Principal of MindShift. In addition, working from home creates its own set of strains.

“Research has demonstrated that participating in back-to-back virtual meetings doubles the stress level and people need to shift behavior to get a break from constant visual and mental strain,” Miller said. “This can be accomplished by inviting people back into the office and transforming secondary spaces into stress-relief areas, including the lobby and breakrooms. Technology adds to stress, and in-person meetings and socialization removes the use of the computer and simplifies communication.”

“People generally support what they create, so it makes sense to involve employees when designing new protocols for hybrid work models,” Druckenmiller said. “Workers have been given tremendous autonomy over the past two years and got a taste of working from home, which has been both a good and bad experience. Now, it is difficult to tell them they cannot be productive from home anymore because they can be. Instead, companies need to seek and determine the next normal.”

Yearning for past rituals

“Employees still working from home remain in a period of mourning because they have lost all the past rituals they embraced,” said Russell Coltess, co-founder and CEO of sweatcrew, a company based in Ontario, Canada.

Getting ready for work, putting on make-up or shaving, and commuting established a comfortable routine that set the tone for the day and many want those rituals back, he said. “Human beings tend to figure things out, but there is an unsettling sense among many, with the workplace representing a symbol of stability and social interaction with the opportunity to connect with others.”

“There is general discontent in the workplace and people are expressing that they are done,” Miller added. “The biggest mistake is for organizations to believe that things can get back to normal because there is no reason for that to occur. Employees are rethinking the value of the office and what they can perform better there, as opposed to being home. Companies need to identify those same reasons and execute a return-to-work policy that centers on these factors. People are resilient and get stronger through trauma but normalcy is different now and organizations need to understand and respond to that fact.”

Bloomberg recently reported that workers in New York City expect to lower the amount of time they spend in the office by nearly 50% in the year ahead, which will trigger a negative trickle-down impact on the amount of money spent in city restaurants and shops. The percentage eclipses 50% in San Francisco. Despite the drop, companies are not expected to shed significant space because they need to account for all employees working from the office at the same time.

“Hybrid is the new normal and work is now wherever you do it,” said Mike Petrusky, the moderator of the discussion.