Staying Home to Avoid an Office Flub?

Leaders may be overlooking one reason some employees avoid returning to the office: the fear of new social and cultural minefields in today’s office environment.

After two years of working remotely, Bill was anxious about returning to the office. Though he was a 10-year veteran of the firm, there had been so much turnover that he no longer knew most of his colleagues. Above all, because sensitive social and cultural issues are now a regular feature of office conversations, he worried he’d do or say something that would offend his coworkers and torpedo his career. 

As leaders cut bonuses and resort to other draconian measures to get people back into the office, experts say, they may be overlooking one major reason employees are still keeping away: many feel safer at home—and not because of anything related to COVID or health and wellness. From a psychological and job-security perspective, many people have concerns about their ability to navigate the social and cultural landmines of today’s office environment. In a recent Korn Ferry survey, nearly 60% of respondents said that returning to the office has had a negative impact on their mental health. “The office can be a scary place, and people don’t want to work in an atmosphere of fear,” says Alina Polonskaia, global leader of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consulting practice at Korn Ferry. Polonskaia says leaders who force people back to the office risk “pushing them into situations they aren’t comfortable with.”

In many ways, the offices people are being asked to return to are unrecognizable from the ones they left. Ironically, it’s the most casual aspects of the workday—the informal conversations and collaborations that were largely impossible when people were working remotely—that cause the most anxiety. For the most part, this anxiety is occurring across all age groups and racial and ethnic lines. There’s a lack of connectedness and kinship at the office, says Nina Boone, North America leader for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion practice at Korn Ferry. She notes that many young workers who began their careers working remotely don’t feel a sense of solidarity with their colleagues. “Being in the office feels good when you are part of a group,” says Boone, “but it can feel really bad when you aren’t.”

Instead of mandating people to return to the office, Boone suggests, leaders should do more to foster connectedness in the workforce, whether in person or remotely. She adds that organizations need to keep the many promises they’ve made to employees about in-office opportunities for training, development, and networking. “So far, people are going into the office and are being handed a bunch of work,” says Boone.

Similarly, Polonskaia says, leaders can make returning employees feel more comfortable by giving them a voice in creating the new office environment. “Everyone is struggling with the current situation,” she says, “so everyone should participate in designing a new one.” That should include open dialogue about issues, like identity, that allows people to express their feelings without dismissing anyone else’s. 

Experts say leaders can also hold more reorientation seminars about what it means to be in the workplace. These can promote employee resource groups and, more broadly, reinforce the company’s culture and purpose. The way to make people feel less anxious about returning to the office, Polonskaia says, isn’t to police them, “but to create more inclusion and ways for everyone to engage.”


For more information, contact Korn Ferry's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consulting practice.