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Balancing Productivity and Well-being: Evidence-Based Strategies for a Healthy Return to Work




As the world finds its feet again, like an old vinyl record resuming its steady spin after an unexpected jolt, we're spinning our way back to familiar office settings. This transition back to in-person co-working, however, comes with its own medley of emotions: relief, anxiety, excitement, and trepidation, all jostling for attention. Amid the brewing coffee conversations and lively lunchroom chats, an undercurrent of questions about mental health persists.


Starting with the concept of boundaries, one that has been tested and twisted in all possible directions over the last couple of years. Picture this: there was a time when the minute hand crossing five on your office clock signaled the transition from 'work' to 'home'. This 'micro role transition', was made possible by physical boundaries. Then, the pandemic broke these boundaries, turning living rooms into offices and pajamas into work attire. As we head back to work, there's a somewhat uneasy realization that we're going back to the 'old normal' in a 'new normal' world. It's almost like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, the peg being our adapted work-from-home mental set-up and the hole, the physical confines of office spaces. And there's no manual on how to navigate this adjustment.


Then there's the aspect of workplace design. Think about the days of jam-packed brainstorming sessions in meeting rooms or lively lunchtime chats in the cafeteria. These were the perks of an open-plan office, a space designed to encourage interactions and collaboration. Fast-forward to our post-pandemic reality, these crowded spaces could be potential triggers of anxiety, safety concerns taking precedence over the sought-after camaraderie.


Now, let's take a moment to consider the concept of time in the workplace. Remember the 9-5 grind? The timely arrival of coffee breaks, the impromptu after-work drinks, the clear delineation of work hours? The pandemic stretched and contracted time in a manner we never imagined. Suddenly, we were working in our 'own time', balancing personal chores with professional tasks. Here, a key piece of research by Baltes et al. nudges our attention to the idea of flexible and compressed workweek schedules. They found these schedules had a positive effect on job satisfaction and performance. As we transition back, how do we integrate our work lives to retain this flexibility while not losing out on productivity? Can the office incorporate this rhythm of work that we discovered during our home-bound workdays?


Beyond all these logistics, the human factor cannot be overlooked. Workplaces, during the pandemic, emerged as safe spaces for empathetic exchanges. A conversation with a colleague wasn't just about progress reports, it was also about health updates, quarantine stories, and shared challenges. Research affirms this culture of empathy at workplaces is a significant contributor to job satisfaction and team collaboration. As we step back into physical office spaces, there's an opportunity, almost a responsibility, to retain and reinforce this empathy. But how will that translate when the person across the screen is now across the desk?


No discussion about mental health during the pandemic would be complete without mentioning mindfulness practices. They became essential tools to manage stress and build resilience, as affirmed by Khoury et al. (2015). But as we slip back into office attire and brace for daily commutes, will these practices be cast aside, or can we weave them into our office routines? The big question is: can offices become hubs of mindfulness, promoting mental well-being and productivity?


Another aspect we must consider is the impact on employee morale and self-confidence. A recent study highlighted the importance of detaching from work during off-job times, which helps replenish resources and promotes well-being. Over the past couple of years, we've all struggled to create that work-life boundary. With the return to offices, the commuting time, separate workspaces, and set office hours could potentially provide that necessary detachment. However, this reintroduction of clear boundaries might be a mixed blessing, and we'd need to watch and adapt to the shifts in employee morale.


Finally, a new trend that's becoming increasingly popular: hybrid work models. They bring in a breath of flexibility, combining the convenience of remote working with the social interaction of physical offices. According to a survey by Microsoft in their 2021 Work Trend Index, over 70% of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, even as nearly 65% are craving more in-person time with their teams. The balance here is delicate, and organizations would need to be cognizant of individual preferences and mental health implications while charting out their return-to-office plans.


In conclusion, as we tread this uncharted path of re-acclimating to office life, it's not just about re-learning the old but also integrating the new. There are no easy answers, but there's an opportunity to create a work culture that's sensitive to mental health, encouraging open conversations, empathetic exchanges, flexibility, and mindfulness. It's about finding a rhythm that resonates with this 'new normal', one that aligns with both our personal well-being and professional responsibilities. As we dust off our office desks and coffee mugs, it's clear that our journey back to work is more than just a physical transition—it's a psychological one, and every step counts.







 





Ashforth, B. E., Kreiner, G. E., & Fugate, M. (2000). All in a day's work: Boundaries and micro role transitions. Academy of Management Review, 25(3), 472-491.

Veitch, J. A., Charles, K. E., Farley, K. M. J., & Newsham, G. R. (2007). A model of satisfaction with open-plan office conditions: COPE field findings. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27(3), 177-189.

Baltes, B. B., Briggs, T. E., Huff, J. W., Wright, J. A., & Neuman, G. A. (1999). Flexible and compressed workweek schedules: A meta-analysis of their effects on work-related criteria. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(4), 496-513.

Kellett, J. B., Humphrey, R. H., & Sleeth, R. G. (2006). Empathy and the emergence of task and relations leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(2), 146-162.

Khoury, B., Sharma, M., Rush, S. E., & Fournier, C. (2015). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 78(6), 519-528.

Sonnentag, S., & Grant, A. M. (2012). Doing good at work feels good at home, but not right away: When and why perceived prosocial impact predicts positive affect. Personnel Psychology, 65(3), 495-530.

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