Covid gave office workers and companies no other choice than to work from home. However, as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said early on, the pandemic should be seen as an acceleration – not a switch – in terms of remote work culture. Zoom had been on the market for less than seven years when the pandemic hit. Internet speed and technology before that just wouldn’t allow for an effective WFH set-up. But with or without the pandemic, remote work would have eventually caught on. And ever since Facebook allowed all employees permanent remote work, it’s clear that Satya was right, and this movement was not a switch we could just switch back.

Bettina Traurig, Paid Social Business Director at Mindshare UK

The likes of JPMorgan tried anyway, making headlines by declaring that all employees will be expected to return to the office in full. Commercial real estate owners lobbied just as hard for the full return of the workforce. However, even JPMorgan had to announce in April 2022 that workers will be allowed to work from home three days a week after a massive backlash from its employees and a wave of resignations. 

While JPMorgan was tone deaf, it has been tough for many companies to make the right choices. Employees are not easy to please on the topic: the distribution of what they want is more U-shaped than bell-shaped. This means there is about a quarter of people never wanting to return as well as a quarter who want to come in five days a week, with the rest distributed in the middle. This is a manager’s worst nightmare as either way a big chunk of employees will be unhappy. Companies needed to rise to the challenge and provide a flexible work environment that caters to all needs.

The hybrid model, where employees come into the office 2-3 days a week with various flexibility, has been adopted by most companies in London as a compromise and giving the final confirmation that working from home is here to stay. This new environment comes with its own challenges, especially for managers. Creating a sense of community, engaging employees, and supporting their team needs completely new approaches. 

One of the most concerning trends for me as a manager has been the emergence of Zoom      fatigue. Like most trends it started out fun. While we suddenly shifted all our work meetings to Zoom in March 2020, we also did so with our social life. Pub quizzes, baby showers, team drinks and even dates were all held on Zoom. We played with funny filters and put beach backgrounds on during internal team meetings. But the novelty wore off pretty quickly and people seemed exhausted. While in the office it was normal to have a lot of meetings, but it seems like the endless stream of Zoom meetings is a lot more draining for most employees. 

A lot of research on Zoom fatigue has been done already and the results are clear: it isn’t about the number of meetings or hours spent in calls, but if people have their video on. Having your video on during a meeting positively relates to fatigue. How is this possible? Video calls imitate a close-up conversation with lots of direct eye contact and a front-on view at all times. It’s like you are standing with others in an elevator, not a spacious meeting room. This close-up communication can be just as exhausting online as it would be offline (imagine presenting results to your client for an hour while being less than a metre apart).

Additionally, it enables you to look at yourself. Having a mirror in front of your face all day leads to constant self-evaluation. Data shows that this is extremely stressful for most people, and especially for women and new employees.

Most companies ask employees to always have their camera on during meetings without understanding the consequences on their employee’s mental health. Managers will need to set clear guidelines for employees that protect them and implement a new office etiquette that works for everyone.

Zoom fatigue is just one example of the new challenges managers need to be aware of. Anxiety, loneliness and resentment will be key emotions managers need to address. While this might seem like an enormous task, it helps to remember that positive and negative emotions co-exist, and most employees also feel hope, gratitude, and resilience. 

Talking to your team and taking their negative emotions as feedback will enable managers to build a safe and productive environment in this new office world.