Person with a briefcase and a surgical mask returning to the office

Back-to-work: Who’s in control?

Mark Parkinson

Business Psychologist | Executive insight, new psychometrics and entrepreneur specialist. in Work

We humans like to feel we’re in the driving seat. It’s a basic psychological need, and when we don’t believe we have Autonomy, we end up stressed. We also suffer if we don’t have a strong sense of Belonging: the sensation of being connected, and of feeling valued and supported. Finally, we feel uneasy if we can’t demonstrate our Competence. We enjoy the warm glow that comes from using our particular talents to get stuff done.

In many ways this ABC is at the center of the back-to-work dilemma -- especially if that involves a physical return to the workplace. However, whilst many see this as a new and virus-fueled problem, the underlying issues are the same as those that have always triggered work stress.


Getting work design right

There’s plenty of research showing there are six areas of work design which directly influence stress, health, and productivity. They all have obvious links to our needs. Additionally, they require careful thought if we’re to survive in the constantly tilting world of the “new normal.”

We need to think about:

  • Demands: nature and quantity of your work, work patterns, and work environment
  • Control: influence over how, when, and where you do your work
  • Support: help from your manager and colleagues, and resources from your employer
  • Relationships: your ability to maintain relationships and deal with interpersonal issues
  • Role: clarity about what you are expected to do and where the boundaries lie
  • Change: how you feel organizational change is communicated and its effect on you

It’s obvious that the return to the office is going to involve going back into a highly regulated environment. You will be physically distanced from your colleagues, there will be limited contact with your manager, little opportunity to have a relaxed chat over the water cooler, and the whole set-up may well be subject to change at zero notice. On this basis, it looks like your sense of autonomy and belonging are going to take a real dent.

If work habits are impacted -- maybe by having people at work on different days, or at different times of day, or by allocating workstations using the “carpark principle” -- then many will also feel they can’t do their best work. By the way, the carpark approach is when you have no choice over where you are located in the workplace. So at the entrance to a building, you may be told:

“There’s a sanitised space on Level 3 at Workstation 12. That’s where you’ll work.
Have a nice day!”

In all of this, the thing to realize is that these constraints are likely to affect people whatever their needs and personality. That’s because they interfere with the social, intellectual, and structural aspects of going to work -- all at the same time. In other words, everything that makes work fulfilling.


Flexible working

Trying to make work work again is going to be difficult. To take one example, simply making everything “flexible” by varying work patterns may not be the answer. That’s because studies have shown flexible working to be distinctly double-edged. And it doesn’t matter whether this involves working from home or in a traditional workplace.

Customer service rep working from home with flexible work schedule

In the ideal world letting people choose their own work hours sounds like a good idea. It can also suit a variety of different personalities. However, if you are a customer service representative and prefer to work from 6:00am to 2:00pm it will obviously affect your ability to deal with customers -- although at the start of your shift you may be popular with early risers. In contrast, you may like to work in bursts throughout the day -- again, not very useful if you're off-duty when someone wants to talk to you.

The problem is that allowing people to choose their own tempo makes the planning of workflow hard; but equally, imposing a “fixed” flexibility policy means the rest of a person’s life has to align perfectly with it. In reality, the person who is working early in the morning may be doing so because they have young children. Also, staggering the days someone works in an office may be impossible for the very same reason.


It’s not a linear process!

Work design needs to be tailored to the individual but also to cope with the changing needs and demands of a business. However in this case there isn’t a straight line that neatly joins the two together. Perhaps all we can say is that we need to keep people fully in the loop, be very clear about what their role involves, provide all the practical support that’s feasible, and allocate plenty of time to nurturing working relationships. In return, people may accept changes to the demands made on them and relinquish some control over how they do their work.

For any of this to gain traction managers will need to lead in an agile way. In particular, keeping an eye on the changing currents in the workplace, and continuously adapting the aspects of work design that make work doable.

Basically a psychological deal has to be struck -- but it’s going to have to be sold very well.


Traitify builds tools that help people explore their work personality. If you would like to know more, connect with Traitify.


RSSSubscribe to Our Blog