Face-to-Face? Forget It.

Nearly half the people in a new study say they are anxious about returning to face-to-face interactions. How that complicates office reopenings.

He came down the hallway for the first time in a year and was surprised at his reaction. Instead of wanting to see colleagues in person again, he began feeling dread, even fear. Asked to attend a meeting, he went silent and noticed his legs trembling. He spent the rest of the day hiding in his office.

For good reason, corporate leaders have focused on COVID safety issues as they try to bring workers back to the office. But it turns out, people are surprisingly nervous over another issue: seeing each other. Indeed, after a year of working from home, nearly half the respondents to a new study on pandemic-induced stress by the American Psychological Association say they are nervous about having to be around people again. Many apparently feel they’ve lost the ability to relate to one another face-to-face, says Andy De Marco, Korn Ferry’s vice president of human resources for the Americas. “It’s not going to be easy to rebuild that social muscle,” he says.

The study doesn’t spell out the level of anxiety, but experts say it could range from simply being introverted to clinically diagnosed disorders. Either way, anxiety around in-person interaction adds yet another challenge for leaders as they sort out when and how people return to the office—and what is the right work environment for the future. One primary argument for bringing people back, of course, is that teams are supposed to be more collaborative, innovative, and productive in person. “A lot of people can’t wait to get together,” says Dennis Baltzley, global head of leadership development solutions at Korn Ferry. “They feel they’ll be more effective at addressing problems and will feed off collective energy to find more creative solutions.”

David Vied, global sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice, says that from a mental health perspective, returning to the office is going to be just as difficult for the socially anxious as going into the crisis was for extroverts. Suddenly, he says, they are going to be around a lot more people outside the comfort of their homes, in an essentially new setting and having to learn a completely new routine. The crisis limited choice—people did what they had to—while emerging from it means socially anxious people are now confronted with a myriad of choices. “That’s going to make it awkward for them for a time,” says Vied.

Experts say one way leaders can help workers is by introducing small changes at first, such as bringing a team back to the office just to reconnect for a day or two in person, instead of having them launch right into a project. Alina Polonskaia, global leader of diversity and inclusion solutions at Korn Ferry, also advises organizations to think about remote or hybrid work not just from a space perspective but from an interaction one. “Work design should take into account how people want to engage,” she says, pointing to some people’s preference for communicating via Zoom, phone, email, or chat instead of face-to-face.

De Marco says firms should also cite specific reasons for why people or a team is being called into the office—be it for an account pitch or a training session. Clear messaging can help make socially anxious people feel comfortable. Most importantly, however, De Marco says the best way to help people who are reticent to reengage is “with empathy, listening, and gentle persistence that being back together will be rewarding and energizing.”