Back to Work – Back to Reality

The Psychology of Re-Integrating Employees into the Physical Workplace

With the easing of lockdown restrictions, and a general increase in ‘herd immunity’, more and more employers are starting to request, and in other cases, demand, the return of its workforce to the physical workplace.

In many ways it is understandable that an employer would want the physical presence, and re-integration of employees at work again, after all, prior to the disruption of COVID-19, work was, at least for the most part, centralised within a physical space. The question that perhaps begs here is, what is the intent behind the request (or demand) to return to work?

It is of course not wrong for an employer to want an employee to return to the workplace, but that does not necessarily make the employer right either. Let me explain; when it comes to getting people to do something, the why is as important as the how. In other words, if you, as an employer/manager, want your people back at work, there has to be a legitimate and meaningful reason behind this decision (that is to say, the why). If the reason is simply ‘because’, well, unfortunately, this will simply not cut it with employees, at least not from a motivational viewpoint.

If the reason for return is ‘because’ –a question of request legitimacy and overall lack of autonomy is created in the mind of the employee. This is particularly salient in cases where employee productivity from home equalled, or even surpassed productivity rates at work. Sure, if the employer pushes hard enough, the employee will be forced to return to work, but at what cost? Whilst the South African labour landscape does not lend itself to the same mass exodus of talent seen in the Great Resignation in the US, it does not mean that the same psychological variables are not at play here. At its core, the Great Resignation speaks to a clash of values between an employer and employee, where many employees felt ‘used and abused’ by ‘greedy and inconsiderate employers’.  

The reality here is a simple one, whilst a South African would be less inclined to resign, their forced return to a workplace could lead to far more destructive consequences, such as:

  • Presenteeism (being at work, but doing precious little);
  • Increased absenteeism (often as a means to rebut the demand for return);
  • Creation of off-task behaviours (where people sabotage projects, or simply engage in tasks which hold no relevance to work as a means to regain personal autonomy);
  • Poor word of mouth of your company (people that are unhappy will readily spread the word of how ‘bad’ it is to work for someone) – this in turn negatively impacts your capacity to attract and retain future talent;
  • The destruction of Organisational Citizenship Behaviours (think loyalty, going the extra mile, dedication and enthusiasm for your company).

If we take this from the perspective of an employee, we should consider the following;

  1. It could well be, that in the mind of the employee, their home-based productivity rates equal, or surpass pre-lockdown levels, so what would going back to work achieve (besides paying for ever more expensive fuel and sitting in traffic);
  2. Two years have passed since lockdowns started, and the way in which the employee lives and works has changed – think for example of work-life balance, such as in terms of childcare, school-runs, their own mental well-being, and in some cases, even in terms of their own relationships (some may have divorced and lost support).  
  3. In some cases, employees who have been working from home may experience a measure of agoraphobia (fear of public spaces and people). Whilst this may sound silly on face value, forcing a person back into a socially demanding situation may in fact lead to negative mental health consequences. The problem with this is that emotions are ‘contagious’ – that is to say, people pick up quickly on the emotional state of another person, and generally, this can spread easily throughout the company.

What this therefore means is that the return of employees to the physical workplace is a process, not a quick switch. As mentioned earlier, getting people/employees to do something requires a fine balance of a legitimate, reasoned request, and the creation of autonomy in the mind of the employee. In fact, research by Kukita, Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2022) found that irrespective of the instruction provided to a person, their engagement in that activity increases when their level of ‘perceived autonomy’ is higher. In the words of Kukita et al. (2022:42);

…in other words, an extrinsic motive does not need to be eliminated as long as one experiences a moderate level of internalized, autonomous motivation…

This research therefore tells us is that in principle, there is nothing wrong with asking people to come back to work – the request itself is not what corrodes the person’s internal level of autonomy – it is how the request is structured and executed that is the key here.

To build the perceived autonomy required from employees, it is essential that an employer meaningfully consults with employees as to how best to manage the transition back into the workplace. This consultation should create various options that employees can utilise, and should include:

  • Appropriate time considerations for re-integration;
  • The integration of hybrid-work where possible;
  • The provision of psychological support, and meaningful open-door policies for continued consultation.

In conclusion, when it comes to getting people back to the workplace, it is better to ‘play the long-game’ and understand that by providing meaningful consultation, reasoned requests, and appropriate options for re-integration, an employer is able to capitalise on the good-will earned during the difficult lockdown period, whilst further building organisational citizenship behaviours and overall institutional attractiveness both now, and in the future.