This article was originally pulished on 9 June in Forbes
With vaccine rollouts going strong, companies are making return to the office plans. Google announced most employees would work three days a week. Apple has also made a similar plan, to which employees have pushed back on.
But returning to the office life as we once knew it—a commute followed by eight hours in an office, and then a commute home—is not as simple as flipping a policy change switch. When Covid-19 started, we had no choice but to grab our laptops and start working from home at speed. We adapted, driven by the novelty and a sense that everyone was in it together. But we can't just pull a seamless 180-degree turn back to the way it was before. We're out of practice, and the inclination isn't there when we've lived an alternate work reality for 18 months.
The best athletes in the world don't break world records or win medals without any training. They slowly build strength and speed. Then, when they are asked to perform, they are ready.
How can you build up endurance for the office? One idea is to start small. Allow employees to commute in off-peak times, spend a few hours in the office instead of the full day, and then commute home off-peak again. This allows people to simultaneously build up commuting courage and time spent in the office—with the perk that as soon as being around humans again in an office setting gets tiring, they can go home.
You can also build endurance with the mandated days of the week. If the ultimate company goal is three days a week, start with just one day a week. Gradually build to two days a week. Then, when the mandate for three days a week starts, it won't feel like such a radical shift.
The mere exposure effect explains how the more often one is exposed to a stimulus or situation that can be perceived as frightening, the less frightening it becomes. For example, boarding a tube train in London during rush hour for the first time post-pandemic could be anxiety-inducing at first, but then become increasingly normalized upon repeated exposure. This effect primarily works because it reduces uncertainty, and therefore people like it more. Granted, there is only so much "liking" that can be associated with a commute, but at least it doesn't have to be scary.
So, how can you do this in the office? One idea is to film your space or create a virtual rendition of the office as it is now to re-introduce people to what it looks and feels like. They can explore hallways, offices, lobbies, and more to start visualizing it again. That way, it won't feel so unfamiliar on the first day back.
Some are eager to get back to the office. For the rest, it could feel like a punishment. For that group, communicate that the benefits of returning to the office often outweigh the perceived losses. Celebrate what is great about the office, such as sparks of innovation and creativity from sharing a space and a more defined barrier between home-life and work-life. Show the success stories of people already reaping the rewards of being onsite to inspire others. That's how you can gently persuade more people to return. By introducing returning to the office slowly, you can ease employees back in—and better prepare them for success.