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You will return to office work. It’s human nature: Social behavior guru

A recent surge in Covid-19 cases due to the delta variant is reigniting discussion on return-to-work across the country. With Apple and Alphabet postponing their return-to-work plans until October, companies and employees are reevaluating whether they want to return to the office.

Continued safety and health concerns even before the surge in new Covid cases suggest it will take time for workers to be comfortable coming back to an office. But eventually, says Duke University behavioral economics and psychology professor Dan Ariely, when it is safe to do so, workers will want to be back in the office more than they think.

“In general, when people are stressed, anxious and worried, this is not the time to expect people to be reflective and understand their own motives in the best possible way,” Ariely said.

After facing a year filled with uncertainty, the human behavior expert says now might not be the best time for workers to make definitive decisions about coming back to the office but, eventually, when the time is right to make decisions on returning to work, workers may surprise themselves.

Return to in-person work on a trial basis

Even though plans were pushed back, many companies like Apple and Google are designing hybrid work models, requiring employees to return to a shortened work week rather than a full five-day week, though the flexibility in each company’s hybrid model does vary.

Whatever the model is, Ariely recommends companies at first provide a trial period for return to the office, instead of forcing employees into a permanent return-to-work plan. He says companies should offer employees shortened work weeks for a specific amount of time, and after that time, employees can decide to work more days per week.

Ariely thinks this will result in more workers choosing to work in person.

“Going back is just a difficult step,” Ariely said. “But if we get people to do it, for even a month or two, I think people will be very different at the end of this period.”

People enter the Goldman Sachs headquarters building in New York, U.S., on Monday, June 14, 2021.

Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Many people are frightened about returning to work, while others have just grown comfortable working remotely, and Ariely says people need to try out new things before making permanent decisions. He compared a trial plan for returning to work with purchasing a new mattress.

“If you go to a mattress store, you can imagine what the mattress feels like and you can lay on it for five minutes,” Ariely said. “But to really experience it, you need to use the mattress for a month to understand how it is.”

Don’t underestimate social interaction

While remote work is advantageous to many workers, alleviating child-care costs and increasing accessible opportunities, in-person work can be helpful for personal interaction and company collaboration, which can be hindered in a virtual world, a point many CEOs have made in explaining why they want workers to return.

“People don’t understand how much they miss other people,” Ariely said. “I think we forget the joys we get from other people.”

During times of lockdowns, quarantines and separation, people have gotten used to isolation and, in many instances, forgotten the value of social interaction. Behavioral research, including one odd finding about humans which Ariely cited, shows how deeply social we are as animals: people will unconsciously smell their hands after shaking hands with another person.

This simple involuntary action reveals the depth and complexity of social interaction, Ariely said. People also value looking into someone’s eyes, seeing their smile, hearing their words and smelling their scent as means of interaction, he said.

“We are social animals, and now this has been taken away from us and we kind of forgot what it is,” Ariely said. “But I think when people go back to work, we will remember.”

Take control where you can

As experts continue to debate why people aren’t returning to work, Ariely recommends companies present clear return-to-work options, and employees need to take control back where they can.

“We live in an environment in which a lot of our freedoms have been taken away from us,” Ariely said. “There are things we, all of a sudden, can’t do. We don’t have the same control over our lives.”

When control is taken away, Ariely says psychological well-being can be taken away. When Ariely was a burn patient in the hospital years ago, he said he had a button which he could press six times a day to receive pain medication, and this control was important for his well-being.

In similar ways, employees should take control back in ways that they can. In small ways, people can gain control by exercising, creating a new routine or opening a savings account, Ariely says, but most importantly, companies should present clear options for return to work and allow employees to control their choice.

The CNBC @Work Summit returns

This fall, October 13, Facebook CIO Atish Banerjea, Bank of America Chief Operations and Technology Officer Cathy Bessant, WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani and Estee Lauder CFO Tracey Travis will talk building a resilient future and more. Register now.

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