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The Return-to-Office Social Reckoning Is Here

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“There’s a social reckoning around work,” argues Melanie Katzman, New York-based clinical psychologist and business coach, in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.  “People are saying, ‘I don’t want to be [in the office] just to be there. I don’t need to come back. What’s the point?”

The ongoing controversy around returning to offices has clearly grown more complicated with the surge of the omicron variant.

But in our interview on Dec. 14, Katzman emphasized that going back is no longer solely a question of medical safety.

The issue is now focused largely around the fact that many working remotely proved they can carry out their jobs without being in the office full time, she says.

In the interview, Katzman describes the challenges of a hybrid return to office and the importance of managers giving employees a reason to come back.

To just “sit in a cubicle wearing a mask on Zoom” isn’t good enough, she says. As for in-person financial advisor–client meetings: “[You] need to match the comfort level of [your] most uncomfortable client,” she stresses.

Katzman has held faculty posts in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical Center and the University of London. Her consulting practice works with clients like AllianceBernstein, Goldman Sachs and ViacomCBS. The popular speaker also provides coping strategies for free via social media and publishes a monthly newsletter.

In our phone interview, Katzman offered several suggestions to meet the return-to-office challenge, noting that for advisors, a Zoom call from home is “likely more powerful communication than talking to a client from an open space in the office with a mask on.”

Here are highlights of our interview:

THINKADVISOR: Why is the question of return-to-office such a contentious issue?

This is so complicated right now and why it’s a time of frustration and confusion. It’s a conundrum. 

Many people don’t want to go back to working in the office. Please explain. 

There’s a social reckoning around work. People are saying, “I don’t want to be [in the office] just to be there. I don’t need to come back. What’s the point?” 

The conversation about work was catalyzed by COVID. But it’s no longer [only] around medical safety because in many instances, people have seen that they can do their job without always being in the office.

At this juncture, people are really talking about their own value system about work. We need to honor that.

But what’s the best way to approach workers to return to the office?

There needs to be some rationale to help people come back. If you bring people back, you need to be intentional. Why are they there? 

If it’s just to sit at the computer and not interact with one another, then I understand why people are agitated about being asked to return.

But if they’re coming back to staff meetings, to exchange information, they’ll get reenergized.

By what?

You can’t underestimate the power of in-person meetings. Humans are hardwired to connect with other humans, and hormones, like dopamine [which is also a neurotransmitter], get us more jazzed up and ready to work.

At a time when there’s a great deal of lethargy because we’ve been in isolation for so long, bringing people together is extremely effective.

But, again, if you bring them in just to sit with a mask in a cubicle on Zoom, that’s not any good.

What are your thoughts about financial advisors holding client meetings?

More on this topic

Advisors’ work is so relationship-oriented. So to be able to see someone’s face is really important. 

If you’re at home on a Zoom call, it’s likely more powerful communication than talking to a client from an open space in the office with a mask on.

What about in-person client meetings?

It’s important that the advisor match the comfort level of their clients because if you have a client who, for instance, isn’t dining at restaurants indoors, I don’t recommend that you meet at one. You need to be sensitive to that person.

People who are in a client-service business need to match the comfort level of their most uncomfortable client.

To what extent should management communicate with workers about the issue of return-to-office?

There’s a vacuum of information, and there’s conflicting information from the government. So it’s important that there be as much information-sharing as possible [from firm management] because information reduces anxiety. 

Companies should give people information about what they know — the plans they have or when they’ll be able to make a plan. 

For example, “We’ll make that decision in mid-January about going back to the office in April.”

Does the hybrid situation — half working in the office and half working remotely — impede productivity or heighten it? Can employees execute their jobs effectively that way?

You want to be sure that people are coming in for a reason and that they’re given the tools to be more effective and are having interactions that motivate them to be more effective.

Is the hybrid situation difficult from a management perspective?

Absolutely. With hybrids, you literally have insiders and outsiders — people who are in the office and people who aren’t. 

Also, hybrid doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. To some, it means working three days in the office and two days not.

For others, it means my team is in the office, and a whole other team is not: Some companies have an “A Team” Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the next week, you’re on the “B Team.” It’s so confusing.

Please summarize your top suggestions for FAs and companies to meet the return-to-office challenge.

No. 1 is to share information. If you have policy decisions, communicate them clearly. 

People are trying to make life decisions; companies can help by telling them what their policy is; for example, if there’s a return-to-office date, tell everybody. 

Or if you have a date when you’re going to make that decision, tell that to everybody. 

If you don’t know, say, “We’ll let you know on January 12 [for instance].” So communicate even partial information.

What else is absolutely critical?

When you ask people to come back to the office, be clear about why, so they understand there’s a reason.

Pictured: Business psychologist Melanie Katzman.