How to Face the Challenges of Going Back to the Office

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By John J. Murphy

We all know the eternal optimist says “the glass is half-full,” while the pessimist says “the glass is half-empty.” But as the author Simon Sinek says, “People who wonder whether the glass is half empty or half full miss the point. The glass is refillable.” That’s the real optimist. 

Research shows that positive energizers, those who are not only optimistic, but who uplift, motivate, and renew others usually wind up uplifting themselves and their organizations. Their contagious positive relational energy is essential to highly effective leadership. 

Facing Change

However, many of us struggle to be positive when we are faced with change. It is often said that people react negatively to change and naturally resist it. We find a comfort zone and want to stay there. Right? This belief seems obvious. However, I challenge this paradigm. Maybe we do not naturally resist change. Maybe we are designed for change. In fact, maybe we thrive on it without even being mindful of it. After all, our bodies are changing effortlessly every second of the day. We change our minds. We change our moods. We change our desires. We desire to change our incomes. We grow. And like a perennial flower with the right conditions, we bloom time and time again. Like Heraclitus once said, “Nothing endures but change.”

Mindful leaders recognize that there are two sides to a coin. Put another way, positive cannot exist without negative. Day cannot come without night. Problems cannot exist without solutions. We need this contrast and context to understand content. What good is data and information without comprehension and understanding?

Going Back to the Office

Take going back to the office after working remotely or a long furlough, for example. What images come to your mind when you think of this change? Getting up in the morning an hour earlier? Putting on pants or a nice skirt with your dress shirt - rather than shorts or sweatpants? Dealing with traffic or train stations? Facing difficult people or navigating office politics? Figuring out confusing mask mandates and minimizing risk? Finding help at home for your children, pets or aging parents? These images may certainly drive some resistance, negativity and doubt – emotions we certainly do not want to bring into the workplace if we intend to be positive leaders.

“We-Opic” Vision

Authentic leadership and teamwork require that we put the “we” in front of the “me.” We think win-win rather than win-lose. I refer to this as a shift from “Me-opic” vision (What’s in it for me?) to “We-opic” vision. We see the world beyond ourselves. And we see ourselves as beacons of light in the world, bringing hope and inspiration to people struggling in the dark.

Let’s go back to returning to the office. What positive elements can you identify with doing so? What images can you dwell on to boost your motivation and influence on others – perhaps struggling with the same challenge? Make a list of the things you like – maybe even love – about going into the office. And make sure you do this from a “We” perspective and not just a “Me” desire. How will your returning to the office benefit the organization and people in the organization? What value can you add by being with your colleagues and clients in person?

Working Remotely vs In-Person Communication 

For me as a business consultant, educator and coach, this change is significant. After two years of “working from home,” I am once again dealing with airports, airplanes, flight changes, hotels, challenging problems to solve with clients, and time away from home. Any thought given to the stress and anxiety of travel will trigger resistance and opposition. Can’t we just continue with virtual meetings and workshops? I haven’t even unpacked yet.

Now, I need to ask: What is best for my clients? What is most effective? How can I add the most value? And what images can I hold in mind that can create a positive vision – something that excites me, something I can dwell on? For me, the answer to these questions is clear. My clients gain far more when I am engaging with them in person – teaching classes, facilitating improvement (kaizen) events, coaching, mentoring and demonstrating various tools real-time. There is no substitute for live human interaction. 

When I see people working together enthusiastically in my mind’s eye, I see past the pain to the gain. I see people prospering. I see teams thriving. I see growth and positive change. And I feel in my heart that I am doing the right thing because I see firsthand that the energy and synergy we generate working together physically as a team is indisputable. Would it be easier to stay at home and work from a computer? For me, yes. For the people I serve? It might be temporarily easier, but far from optimal in terms of overall effectiveness and results.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow illustrated with his Hierarchy of Needs that we as human beings have different levels of needs, beginning with physiological needs (e.g. food, water, air, shelter) and then continuing with security needs (e.g. sense of safety), social needs (e.g. sense of belonging), self-esteem (e.g. sense of value and worthiness) and self-actualization (e.g. sense of doing what I am meant to do and realizing my potential).

Using this model, I see a great opportunity for mindful leaders to address these needs, especially the higher ones. Of course, we compensate people for work (level one). We abide by safe practices (and laws). We even offer health insurance and wellness programs to help with security needs at level two. Some organizations provide a greater sense of belonging with company shirts, uniforms, perks and celebrations. 

The Questions for Mindful Leaders

More and more, mindful leaders are asking: What can we do to boost our associates’ self-esteem and personal power? What can we do to engage them and empower them to grow individually and collectively as teams – to reach levels they are not even aware of yet? Can we do this with distance, isolation and virtual work arrangements? And if so, how? Or is it better to cultivate a work environment in the office where associates truly thrive, where they cannot hide behind a camera turned off?

I believe virtual work environments are here to stay. They make sense from a lean standpoint – stripping out wasted time and movement and freeing up capacity. However, there is great value in real-time human interaction. Virtual work arrangements need not be an either/or proposition. The deciding factor must continue to be “What is best for the We?” 

Mindful leaders put the team first. Mindful leaders show up where and when they are needed. Mindful leaders pull people together and cultivate high-performance teamwork. I recommend going back to the office with these intentions in mind. See positive. Be positive. The energy is contagious.

John J. Murphy is an award-winning author and the founder and CEO of Venture Management Consultants, Inc. a firm specializing in transformational culture change, mindful leadership, operational excellence, and high-performance teamwork. 

What challenges are you facing as you go back to working in an office? If you are struggling, how might you shift your perspective and be a positively energizing leader who can uplift, motivate, and renew your team? Please share below!


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