New Zealand: How to return to the office

The great hybrid return to work: Psychotherapist’s tips for return to the office

By: Cherie Howie/NewZealand Herald

Remember the feeling that comes every January when you swap a sun lounger under the big blue for a chair on wheels under the fluoro white?

Prepare yourself, and channel it now.

That post-Christmas pall that descends over workers might be back after Easter with thousands of workers expected to return to offices as the Omicron outbreak eases.

For some Auckland workers it’ll be the first time back in the office since the country went into a snap level 4 lockdown when cases of the Delta variant were discovered in the community last August.

A return to office life would be “absolutely fine” for some, Mind Matters psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald said.

But for others the experience could mirror that of returning to work after a long summer break.

“You sort of expect the first week to be pretty difficult and pretty exhausting.”

Aucklanders would be in for a rough ride, likely having spent much longer working from home – perhaps even the entire eight months since a Devonport tradie’s positive test confirmed the Delta variant was in the community, with Omicron arriving in the summer.

“That’s long enough for [working from home] to become very normal.”

“Even though it’s going back to something you’re really familiar with, we’re actually talking about quite a significant change, and we should expect anxiety to show up.”

A return to the office also meant less control over who else was around, including those not following measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“We’re reintroducing all those potentially quite tricky conversations so nervousness is probably going to be the overwhelming feeling.”

MacDonald recommended people focus on what they could control, which could include wearing a mask and asking colleagues to follow infection-prevention measures at work.

He also noted the return to commuting “and all the other logistics” of going back to the office.

“Be gentle with yourself. Recognize you can’t do everything that first week back. Maybe some things around the edges might need to drop … just getting your feet under the desk and starting to feel back in the swing of things is the primary goal.”

A rocky first week or two was to be expected, but if intense anxiety continued longer, or it became hard to leave the house or do your job, it was probably a sign professional help might be needed.

Some ongoing anxiety was likely to remain for returning workers, given fluctuating community case numbers and the possibility of new variants.

New role for new times

Managers at Datacom, an IT company, have recognized the return to “normal” could require more focus on supporting staff than before.

They hired a head of engagement and wellbeing in February.

The role was created because of the impact of the pandemic, but also because the company realized wellbeing was central to what employees wanted in a post-pandemic workplace, managing director Justin Gray said.

“[The role] makes sense around caring for our people, and second, it’s about making sure we’ve actually got the people here to drive our business forward.

“Having a strong and capable person in your leadership team [whose priority is to] think about your people every day, I just don’t think that can be a bad thing.”

Datacom has hired a leader solely focused on "engagment and wellbeing" as staff deal with the pandemic and other stresses, managing director Justin Gray says. Photo / Supplied
Datacom has hired a leader solely focused on “engagment and wellbeing” as staff deal with the pandemic and other stresses, managing director Justin Gray says. Photo / Supplied

Don’t push. Talk.

The best thing employers could do was be supportive of their staff, MacDonald said.

“If you’ve got people who are really struggling it’s probably a good idea to have a bit of a chat about what support they might need.

“What we know with anxiety, and when people are struggling, is that pushing them harder doesn’t work. It just creates resistance.”

Giving anxious employees “space and time” to return to offices was one way to help.

Graded exposure – reintroducing something feared, such as the office environment during a pandemic, over a period of time – was a good option.

If an employee is anxious, pushing them harder won't help - it just creates resistance, psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald says. Photo / Supplied
If an employee is anxious, pushing them harder won’t help – it just creates resistance, psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald says. Photo / Supplied

Some workers may never return full-time, sticking with the home office for at least part of the week.

At Datacom, they’re already talking to staff about the best way to do hybrid working, while understanding flexibility was vital to meeting varied needs, Gray said.

The change also meant making sure people understood why they were there.

“We’ve made sure our purpose is really clear, and if we’re attracting people to our business it’s because they want to be linked to that purpose.

“As people are less physically attached to the workplace, I think you need to make sure people are more emotionally attached to why they’re turning up every day to do the job.”

Do I have to go back to the office?

Most workers will need to go back to the office when their workplaces reopen, but any “sloppy” communication could cause headaches for employers wanting staff back behind their desks, employment lawyer Ros Webby said.

“One of the basic things every employment relationship has to cover off in writing is work location, and believe me that prior to Covid, no one’s employment agreement included working from home as a work location.

“So even though most people were quite happy to do so, technically there should have been a variation agreed to allow people to work from home as a work location.”

If there was any lack of clarity in the arrangements, some workers may argue there was no discussion about how long it’d be for, said Webby, a partner at Dundas Street Employment Lawyers.

“Now I’m not saying that’s an argument that’s going to fly in every circumstance, but there might be the odd circumstance in which employers have been sloppy in setting expectations that this is temporary only until things become more manageable back in the office.

“In general, it’s going to be difficult for that argument to fly because an implied term cannot override an express term, and that’s what they’d be arguing. It’s a little nuance that some people might be looking to exploit.”

But a fair and reasonable employer should understand feelings about returning to the office would vary and “just ordering” the reluctant to do so wasn’t good practice, Webby said.

“People are human, and have been dealing with all sorts of things over this time, so just to expect them all to act like automatons and just jump when you say return to the office, while that might absolutely be legally possible, is it the best thing? No.”

Communication is always key in the employment relationship, and that didn't change when it came to discussions about hybrid working, employment lawyer Ros Webby says. Photo / Supplied
Communication is always key in the employment relationship, and that didn’t change when it came to discussions about hybrid working, employment lawyer Ros Webby says. Photo / Supplied

Giving people some say in the date they returned, or even just making sure people felt listened to – even if the answer wasn’t what they wanted to hear – was preferable, she said.

Any employee could also request flexible work arrangements, such as hybrid working, and that could only be refused under provisions including the Employment Relations’ Act, Webby said.

Again, communication was key.

“If somebody thinks working from home part-time would work well for both them and the employer, then why wouldn’t a fair and reasonable employer at least consider it?”

The removal of vaccination mandates – dropped by the Government for all workforces except border, health, disability, aged care and Corrections – would likely not be a good enough reason to refuse to return to work, Webby said.

Employers had to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure a safe and healthy workplace, so the latest public health guidance would be taken into account.

“I’m already having people say, ‘I’m not going to sit next to somebody who’s unvaccinated’, But you can’t [as an employer] guarantee somebody will remain Covid-free – that’s not the legal test.

“It’s, ‘What’s reasonably practicable in all the circumstances?’. And the circumstances have now changed.”