Returning to the office: How to craft our work for a successful transition

Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Chia-Huei Wu is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds. His research interests include proactivity at work, work and personality development, and subjective well-being. His work was published in journals including Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, and Journal of Management, among others. He is the author of the book, Employee proactivity in organizations: An attachment perspective. Ying (Lena) Wang is a Senior Lecturer at School of Management, RMIT University, Australia. Her research focuses on personality and individual differences, employee proactivity, and diversity management. Her work has been published in journals such as Journal of Applied Psychology, Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, Journal of Organizational Behavior, among others.

Women sat in informal meeting in modern office

As social restrictions have eased, many businesses have already had, or are now starting to have, conversations with their people about returning to the workplace. However, it’s unlikely that we will be returning to what we were used to prior to the wave of lockdowns.

Due to the various work-from-home policies that were set up over the last two years, what, how, and when we work have all significantly shifted. This means the transition back to the workplace could be very challenging for many of us.

Instead of thinking of how to cope with this change, why not proactively participate in shaping that change? Below, we discuss how we can craft our job and proactively shape our work-life for a smooth transition back to the workplace.

Develop a 'can-do attitude'

First of all, we need a strong 'can-do' attitude. This involves not only believing in our abilities and competencies but also adopting an agile mindset that's open to re-shaping work. A can-do attitude can be built in several ways. First, knowing what we are good at and channelling our areas of strength into new initiatives. Second, earning support from supervisors or colleagues to champion and move our ideas forward. Finally, anticipating different potential scenarios and being prepared for potential roadblocks. These steps help build confidence when we lead the way.

Different ways to craft our work

Next, we can help by thinking of how to craft our work in different aspects. This includes reassessing what, where, when, how, and with whom we work, and most importantly, finding “why”.

Regarding tasks or what we do at work, we can spot opportunities to change or swap tasks based on where we work (e.g., home, office, or other locations) during the transition back to the workplace. Some colleagues may not be able to fully return to the office to pick up tasks that need to be done in the office, while others may want to be in the office fully. So, there could be opportunities to swap tasks to fit their preferred working arrangement. This is a good time for us to seize opportunities to negotiate what we'd like to do moving forward.

In addition to what we do, we could also shape jobs regarding how, where and when we do our work. Our experience during social restrictions has enabled us to try alternative ways of working in this regard, and we could take this learning and retain the benefits after returning to the workplace. For instance, we know which communication technology works better for different communication purposes; where is the best space to work for different tasks; and how to plan and schedule for the day in order to have a smooth workflow and reduce work-family conflict. We should not forget that we can craft our jobs by considering choices of our work methods, work locations, and task scheduling.

We also need to pay due attention to the groups of people who are working together.      During social restrictions, we learned what tasks are best done face-to-face and what tasks are best done independently. While a lack of social interactions can bring disruption to people in certain jobs, others seem to benefit from improved efficiency due to having more quiet time to dive into deep work. We should reflect on our experience in this regard and use this knowledge to design our social interaction patterns as we return, based on the nature of our jobs and also on our personal preferences.

Finally, we may have taken our jobs for granted in the past, or even resented them at times, but the pandemic has enabled us to see the value of our work. In a BBC report, a supermarket checkout operator talked about how she found her job meaningful and important, serving society and helping others during lockdown. Many of us may share this feeling, as the pandemic has led us to appreciate how our work is intricately connected with our identities, how our work can have a significant impact on other people (i.e., we see the purpose of our work), and how our work is valuable to ourselves and our family.

Keeping these perspectives in mind can inspire us during the transition back to the workplace, and remind us why we do our job.

Craft our work wisely

Importantly, when we aim to craft our work, we need to pay attention to the bigger picture so that we can carry it out in the best possible way. This could mean asking questions such as, do our proposed job arrangements fit with the organisation's strategic direction? How will our proposed changes affect the team and other colleagues?

We must be mindful of how feasible our proposed ideas are, and how they might impact others and the broader organisation before going ahead. Suggestions that directly address the organisation's needs or benefit the team are more likely to be favourably considered and endorsed by managers. Also, if we propose to change our jobs in certain ways, we need to establish if we have appropriate autonomy to do so or whether we'll need to 'sell' the ideas first to get the support and endorsement we need. Job crafting that aligns with organisational context is more likely to make the proposed change a success. 

This blog post is also published on the RMIT University website.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.