“Return to work” makes no sense. Here’s why.

By Kate Lee

“Return to work” implies people have not been working. They have. A lot.

Recent research conducted by Jennifer Moss, Michael Leiter, Christina Maslach, and David Whiteside, in association with Harvard Business Review, found that global burnout is a problem. The majority of respondents (85%) reported a decline in well-being with only 21% of respondents rating their well-being as “good,” and a mere 2% rating it as “excellent.” 

If we look at how work has changed since the start of the pandemic, these results are unsurprising.

The average workday is now 10.75 hours – 48.5 minutes longer than it was pre-pandemic. At the same time, job demands have increased, as has time in meetings and time connected with colleagues via channels such as Slack and Teams

If we have learned anything over this past year, it is that work is a verb and not a place. 

With President Biden’s announcement that 90% of adults will be eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccination by April 19, 2021, leaders are wrestling with when and if they should bring people back to the office

For those who plan to bring their workforce back to the office, it is critical to frame the future as just that – a return to the office, not a return to work. People have been working – a lot.

This shift in mindset from “return to work” to “return to the office” is critical. It not only acknowledges that people have been working, but it also sets expectations and establishes guardrails around the first days, weeks, and even months of bringing people back into the office.

Leaders need to place focus on re-connecting with people, giving people opportunities to re-connect with others, establishing a new cadence of work, and prioritizing well-being. Leading with empathy and compassion and giving people the opportunity to step away from “survival mode” and feeling of always needing to be on is not just “nice,” it is common sense.

Research shows that an engaged employee is 45% more productive than a merely satisfied worker. And an inspired employee — one who has a profound personal connection to their work and/or their company ― is 55% more productive than an engaged employee or more than twice as productive as a satisfied worker. 

When employees are burned out and don’t feel that their work is valued, they are not engaged and not inspired. The better an organization is engaging and inspiring its employees, the better its performance. 

Whether you plan to adopt a hybrid model or plan to bring your workforce fully back into the office, don’t announce a “return to work,” that is a slap in the face. People have been working more, working harder, and navigating simultaneous health, economic, and social crises – while at the same time caring for children and sick family members, dealing with isolation, and facing uncertainty. 

Remember, work is a verb, not a place. 


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