From FORTO to FOMO: How to combat fears of returning to the office

  • Author Dan Bladen, CEO & Co-Founder

You’ve probably heard of FOMO. You’ll almost definitely have heard of LOL. But are you familiar with FORTO? FORTO stands for fear of returning to the office, and is a very 2021 acronym. As light-hearted as it sounds, it addresses a very real problem. back-to-office anxiety is something many workers are experiencing as they contemplate an end to mandatory remote working.

The Fear of Returning to the Office (FORTO)

They say it takes, on average, 66 days to form a habit – which means work-from-home habits are well and truly entrenched by now. Getting up late. Zoom calls. Sweatpants not chinos.

And habits are hard to break, hence why back-to-office anxiety is a thing. Researchers from MIT found that neuron activity in your brain changes as you form a habit, firing in clusters at the beginning and the end of the behavior. These new patterns help hardwire the behaviour and make it hard to change. Your brain has settled into a routine. If you’re forced to change that routine, it’s unsettling.

For people experiencing FORTO, it’s important to remember that it can be the process of change, rather than the end result, that feels overwhelming.

Struggles of remote working

Some of us took to working from home easily. No more commute. Home comforts. Lunch breaks in the garden. Time with the family. But for many – particularly younger workers – it’s been a struggle.

Being away from the office has been isolating. It has impacted career progression. It has made it harder to establish personal and professional relationships at work. And many workers (44% according to a recent survey of business professionals we carried out) report feeling like they’re “always on” and having a poor work/life balance. Frequent distractions, screen fatigue, and financial pressure are also common complaints.

The benefits of a return to in-person work are very real for many, from rekindling friendships to the buzz of face-to-face collaboration and teamwork.

A hybrid office culture will help with FORTO

As economies open up, another upheaval in workplace culture is on the cards. But this time, it’s different.

The office is changing. Most businesses have made it clear that they don’t intend to return to an office-only model. Commuting five days a week and rows upon rows of messy desks are – we hope – over for the majority.

There’ll be a return to the office of sorts – but it’s unlikely to be the same. Flexibility for employees will be king.

“Employees are in charge, not companies… The employees and the talent market is (sic) going to drive working flexibility, not the companies. Because if a company says these are our rules, they’re not going to have the talent.” says Airbnb CEO and Co-Founder Brian Cesky.

Remote-first means the default is working remotely – whether that’s at home, in a local co-working space or in a coffee shop. Organizations still have offices, but they’re used very differently – usually for collaboration, brainstorming and facilitating the social side of work.

The face-to-face human interaction so crucial for developing relationships and producing great work is not lost, and employees get to enjoy the flexibility of working away from the office if they want to. Often, office space is provided for people who want to come in to do quiet work too, if they don’t have a suitable remote work location available.

Help employees overcome hot desk anxiety

A high-functioning remote-first culture relies on some form of desk-sharing system.

Gone are the days of one desk per person. With a hybrid workplace culture, there’s no need. You can use office space more productively and include more social and collaboration spaces.

In the past, shared desks meant hot desking. It had a bad rep, and rightly so. You didn’t know where you’d be sitting, or even if you’d find a workstation at all. Desks weren’t always clean. Get up to go to the bathroom and you’d risk losing your spot.

These problems can be overcome with a desk hoteling system. Booking software such as Chargifi Wx lets employees reserve a desk in advance using an intuitive app, either as a one-off booking or on a regular cadence. They can choose when they come in, where they sit, and who they sit with. Actual desk usage can inform cleaning rotas, so a clean desk awaits every employee.

For organizations, a desk hoteling software system sets free the potential of the office in a remote-first culture. You can set up office neighborhoods that cater for different teams’ needs. Your space planning decisions are informed by actual and forecast desk usage data, so you can create a workplace employees can thrive in. You can experiment with different layouts virtually.

Wellbeing tips to overcome anxiety about returning to the office

Paying attention to employee wellbeing when you implement any change in workplace routine will help make sure it goes as smoothly as possible.

1. Avoid uncertainty

Uncertainty is a source of anxiety, so consult employees about changes. Our employee survey toolkit is a great starting point. Once agreed, communicate changes clearly. Fear can be contagious, but so can positivity. Be realistic about concerns but remain upbeat in your communications and focus on the benefits the new setup will bring.

2. Create those water cooler moments

Our recent study of over 1,500 employees revealed that ‘watercooler moments’ were some of the most noted benefits of in-office experience. Reconfigure office design to encourage those serendipitous encounters.

3. Create a seamless experience

Intuitive tools that let employees and teams reserve workspaces easily – from individual desks to meeting rooms – will make the in-office experience as seamless and stress-free as possible.

4. Rebuild community

Rebuild that community feel with social events, workplace apps, digital communication platforms such as Slack and an office setup that encourages connection – such as hub and spoke models and a welcoming “first floor”.

5. Design workplaces focused on wellbeing

From introducing green spaces to natural light and air flow, draw on the principles of biophilic design to promote wellbeing.

A final thought on relieving office anxiety

It’s no surprise that FORTO is preying on the minds of many workers. Neuroscience shows us that change is hard. But a modern, remote-first model that puts flexibility first will help your employees.

Whether they’re fans of remote working or not, they’ll have options and be able to get the best of both worlds. And paying attention to employee wellbeing will make sure the transition is a smooth one.

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