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Practice Management > Building Your Business > Leadership

Get Ready for a Rough Road Back to the Office

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As the pandemic recedes, a return to normal life — maybe a new normal — is increasingly in view. But the shift to reporting to offices in person will likely be fraught with psychological issues.

“My biggest prediction is that we’re going to have a tsunami of mental health worries. This will be a really rough period,” business psychologist Melanie Katzman forecasts in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

After working from home and doing virtual meetings for some 14 months now, employees are feeling anxious and awkward about returning to shared physical space, Katzman says.

She maintains a clinical practice in New York City and has held faculty posts in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical Center and the University of London.

Management should expect high levels of tension both from workers who want to be back to the office and those who don’t, argues the psychologist, whose New York-based Katzman Consulting numbers clients that include AllianceBernstein, Goldman Sachs, PricewaterhouseCoopers and ViacomCBS.

Polls have found that about half the workers returning to offices are feeling anxious about getting back to “normal life,” according to Katzman.

When it comes to financial advisors, she appreciates that in-person meetings with prospects are vital to developing relationships. Katzman argues, however, that FAs should hold off on trying to arrange these.

As people transition from pandemic life and are feeling anxious about what lies ahead, they are in no mood to be “pitched,” she says.

In the interview, Katzman argues that the pandemic taught valuable lessons in alternative ways jobs can be executed, among other positives.

“If you just try to replicate what was there before,” she says, “you’ve lost what the pandemic gave us.”

Katzman, who was a senior fellow at Wharton Business School’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, is a partner in the international social enterprise Leaders’ Quest.

A popular speaker and business coach, she regularly provides free advice and coping strategies via social media and publishes a monthly newsletter as well. 

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the psychologist, speaking by phone from Memphis, Tennessee.

About the return to offices, she noted that people need to renew their interpersonal skills, which rusted in lockdown and afterward with limited social interaction.

Katzman suggests giving a welcoming smile to co-workers. “Even if you have a mask on,” she says, “your eyes show it.”

Here are highlights from our conversation: 

THINKADVISOR: Post-pandemic, what do you foresee happening in business offices from a psychological perspective?

MELANIE KATZMAN: My biggest prediction is that we’re going to have a tsunami of mental health worries. Companies need to be prepared for that. 

The amount of emotion that people are experiencing now is across a very wide spectrum. They feel anxious and awkward about returning to the office. We can’t pretend that everything is fine and normal. This will be a really rough period.

What do you see as the scenario when employees return to their offices?

Not everybody wants to be back at the office. It will be very hard for companies that are either not direct service or production to go full time [in-person]. There’ll be a lot of tension that needs to be managed. 

For example, there’ll be tension in companies that dictate versus those that have conversations with employees. There’ll be tension between people who are vaccinated and those who aren’t. 

A lot of tension will stem from the civil unrest we had during the pandemic.

There was a real reckoning in a lot of companies and an unleashing of emotion, which hasn’t been resolved.

To what extent are firms requiring employees to return to the office?

Certain companies have always said, “Everybody has to be in the office.” Now some are saying, “It turns out we were able to function without people being in the office, so we’re going to a required three or four days.”

But some firms, such as Goldman Sachs, are saying, “Everybody back!”

Others, like private equity firms, are saying, “Everybody back!” But the employees are saying, “No, I’m not doing that: I travel to look at assets and deals. Why do I need to come into the office on the other days?” So there’s a lot of resentment.

Well, then, are senior managers facing some major challenges?

Companies need to take a hard look at how to give people more flexible arrangements about being in the office. They need to have conversations company-wide about things they found that challenge the assumptions they had — and that have worked. Like “Do we always have to be in the office in person?” “Do we always have to be on an airplane?”

However, it’s really important to realize that people were working at home during a pandemic, and that’s different from working at home when the world is open. We don’t know what that looks like yet.

What are the biggest impediments for employees in the move from working in virtual space to sharing physical space?

One is the discomfort of having to be fully presentable. People have been dressing in comfortable clothes and working in less professional [home] settings. 

Suddenly we’re having to wrap ourselves in all the professional trappings. We’re out of practice. 

There’s a lot of tension people feel about going back to work. They’re nervous for a variety of reasons.

How can employers help make this a transition rather than an abrupt change?

Everybody feels so awkward. So I’ve been recommending to many clients that before they bring people back [to their jobs], they have small in-person gatherings at the office to get comfortable just being with other people again. 

Financial advisors like to hold in-person meetings with clients and prospects. Should they set these up right away?

People are telling me they’re not ready to have in-person meetings with their bankers or financial advisors — someone who would pitch them. There’s so much anxiety [in general]; people are processing a lot. So in-person meetings to develop business with people you don’t know may be premature at this moment.

What tack should advisors take with clients and prospects on the phone? 

Questions should be very open, like “How has the last year been for you?” You need to really listen and be attentive to cues people give. You can’t assume that in the pandemic everything was fine or everything was miserable. 

Also, not everyone wants to talk about quarantine or the virus. Plenty of people are looking to going back to business as a relief from what has been an exhausting period of repeated activities and conversations.

At the office, should folks make it a point to interact with one another, like saying hi when walking in the hall?

Absolutely. We were working from home. Now people need to feel like work is homey. That comes from interaction. Small talk is big talk.

Many people are having a hard time knowing how to make that initial small talk, but the little niceties that people exchange create a bond between them. They’re critical interpersonal glue. 

With everyone feeling awkward, it’s more important to create a welcoming environment and to say hello. Make eye contact where possible. Even if you have a mask on, it’s important to be smiling — your eyes will show it.

Some employees have had access to senior management via virtual meetings. Can they maintain that in person at the office?

That’s up to senior management. It’s on them to make themselves available. They could engage by, perhaps, walking around [the office].

If a firm has had a dress code, should that resume, or can it be put aside?

Companies need to have conversations with employees about what everyone is calling “the new normal.” 

I suggest that before management puts out a diktat [about an issue], they hear what employees consider really important to preserve. That doesn’t mean management will comply. But if, for instance, relaxing the dress code would make people happier, it could help create a more satisfied team. 

Should employers provide mental health professionals to help employees get through this difficult time?

They should have some resources to which they can [refer them]. Many companies have employee assistance programs [EAPs]. So it could be something that the company pays for — or just a resource they’re providing, like a hotline to call or a service to access.

The other part of this is educating managers about what they can anticipate. We need to train them to recognize when someone is getting overwhelmed or showing signs of burnout. We need to train them in how to help employees set boundaries and manage their time.

Companies need to invest in mental health awareness and to train managers about it. That’s going to give you a much bigger return versus people coming to work and putting on a happy face but feeling stressed and anxious. 

You can pretend that isn’t there, but it’s going to pop through. If it pops though when it’s not being dealt with, companies will end up with much lower productivity.

What do you think of the no-internal-video-calls policy — “Zoomless Fridays” — that Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser announced in March?

It’s absolutely fabulous. Zoom is exhausting, and having Zoom-free days gives people the opportunity to do deep work. I encourage people to go “meetless” — to have a day a week without any meetings at all. Then they can do the work that often gets pushed to late at night because their days have been filled with meetings.

You’ve said that right now, there’s “an opportunity to create a new, more sustainable normal.” Please elaborate.

In the pandemic, you Zoomed into one another’s homes. You saw the dog, the artwork [and so on]. There was a new intimacy, and we lost some of the division between personal and professional in a healthy way: It humanized who we were talking to. That humanization is something, hopefully, we can continue into the new normal. There’s a chance now to write a whole different chapter. Grabbing that opportunity is exciting.

If you just try to quickly replicate what was there before, you’ve lost what the pandemic gave us.

Yes, this has been a horrible year. But there were lessons in it that we should all learn.

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