The Joys of Returning to an Empty Office

My company has allowed us to return to the office on a voluntary basis, using a rotational system in which employees have the opportunity to be on-site two days per week. I tried it out last week and loved it! Just one other employee in my division of the company, the facilities manager, and the cleaning staff were there. It was the most comfortable, peaceful work environment I have ever experienced.

I feel slightly bad because I know the reason I have almost the whole office to myself is that my co-workers are afraid to return. Unlike me, most of them have to take mass transportation—the subway and/or train or bus—to get here, whereas I have a relaxing 40-minute walk. I may not have returned either if I had to brave close proximity in an enclosed space with people outside my household. I’m sure there are others who also may be within walking distance, or who have cars, but are still fearful. They may not realize that with face-coverings, social distancing and hand-washing, they have much less chance of catching the virus. So, for now, I am luxuriating in my spacious work accommodations.

A Korn Ferry survey conducted in early June found that fewer than a third (32 percent) say it is highly likely they will return to their office when it reopens. Half (50 percent) say they are fearful of going back due to health concerns, even though 75 percent say they believe their employer will create a safe and healthy work environment for them.

One idea to get workers back into the office—if you want them back, that is—is to have the employees who have decided to return document their experience. Imagine a blog in which employees who have returned to in-person work at the office share their feelings about being able once more to work in their office instead of on their couch with their children, pet, or spouse (or all three) disturbing them. How long would it be before other employees reading about the positive experience begin to feel envious and push themselves to return? Competition also can play a role in driving people back to the office. There are always those people who see that some colleagues have returned to in-person work and feel they also must return to keep up. Fear is a powerful emotion, so to overcome that emotion and encourage a return to in-office normalcy, you may need to tap into other powerful emotions, such as competitiveness.

The journals kept by employees who have returned to the office also may have value in helping HR and Learning professionals pinpoint problem areas. For instance, what if a newly returned employee notes that counters in the kitchen don’t seem clean enough and that there aren’t enough hand sanitizer dispensers? Or they notice that not everyone who has returned to the office is wearing a face covering? These employees, who are piloting in-office work, are showing you places where you need to do better or step up monitoring and enforcement. Employee education on why new requirements, such as face coverings and social distancing, are necessary also may be needed.

On the other hand, a mostly empty office can allow an employee to notice positive attributes of your workplace you may never have thought of before, and which you can think about optimizing. In my case, it’s the light and view from the big windows in our office. With no one sitting next to me, I feel at ease to gaze often at the big trees in full bloom outside the window. What if the desks in the office were reconfigured so that as many as possible faced forward toward a window?

Similarly, I make a habit of doing work while listening to music through noise-canceling headphones. With the office nearly empty, I can enjoy working in silence. A full office will never be silent, but if you find more than one employee noting the joy of quiet, you could brainstorm ways of creating a quieter, more peaceful office. That might mean putting up collapsible walls or barriers to break up a large open space or putting tall dividers between desks.

If, like my company, yours has made returning to the office voluntary, think of the brave few who have returned as participants in a pilot study. Ask them to the note the good and the bad aspects of their experience, and encourage them to share with peers the advantages of working someplace other than their living room.

Is your in-person workplace fully reopened? If so, how many employees have returned? What are you learning from the experiences of those who are back?