When the transition to virtual work began over a year ago, few people expected to still be conducting video calls from their living rooms all these months later. Work-life issues that preceded the pandemic have intensified, and the emergency measures implemented in early 2020 are finally wearing thin.
As leaders grapple with plans for employees to return to offices, they will need to take a hard look at both the psychological and physical needs of their employees and consider how to address them going forward. Planning the return to shared physical workspaces offers an opportunity to transform lessons learned during the pandemic into a sustainable model of work.
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Mere Survival Is Not Enough — We Need to Thrive
Pandemic concerns prompted companies to make sudden changes and countless adjustments that were not intended to be permanent. This kind of uncontrollable disruption to daily life can trigger our survive response, driving anxiety and sending the body into overdrive. When stress hormones (cortisol, dopamine, and adrenaline) are released, we react quickly — more from instinct than from thoughtful reasoning. This biological and psychological hardwiring might explain the high levels of productivity we saw during the first three quarters of 2020, when productivity remained on par with or above pre-pandemic levels.
The fourth quarter, however, tells a very different story. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent productivity data, the last three months of 2020 saw a 4.2% decline in productivity — the largest quarterly drop in almost 40 years — suggesting that the high-stress survival response we’ve experienced for over a year is no longer sustainable. Continuing to operate in this overheated state is like trying to sprint through an entire marathon.
Prioritize sustainable work models. Planning our return to physical workspaces offers an opportunity to intentionally activate the thrive response within employees. Unlike the stress-induced survival response that limits critical thinking, the thrive response stimulates curiosity. Our brains release chemicals (oxytocin and vasopressin) that predispose us to social engagement, resulting in greater trust and collaboration and allowing us to look for opportunities instead of hazards. Per Richard Boyatzis’s intentional change theory, leaders should trigger the positive emotional attractor (PEA) — a self-regulating state of positive emotions — to enhance motivation, effort, optimism, flexibility, creative thinking, resilience, and other adaptive behaviors.