Prioritising employee wellbeing; whether at home or in the office

2020 will always be known as the year that everything changed. We’ve all had to adjust to new ways of living and working. And while there are some perks to working from home that people enjoy, it does come with challenges. It’s not uncommon for workers to have felt stressed, anxious or unmotivated. The Covid pandemic is not like anything we’ve experienced before and many people have felt the impact on their own wellbeing.

Last month in a Steelcase webinar, Dr Tracy Bower and wellbeing expert Gary Strehlke shared insights as to why workers are feeling so drained and offered strategies for managing wellbeing, whether working from home or returning to the workplace.

The challenges of working from home

When the coronavirus pandemic triggered a mass shift to home working, many organisations saw an increase in productivity. In fact, one study conducted in May found worker productivity had increased by 47%.

But six months later, people are starting to hit a wall. The novelty of working from the dining room table has worn off.

We're moving less and less. And our circles have become smaller as we connect with fewer people. 

A recent study by Qualtrics revealed the impact Covid is having on workers’ mental health:

  • 67% are experiencing higher stress levels
  • 57% are experiencing higher levels of anxiety
  • 54% feel more emotionally exhausted
  • 75% feel more socially isolated
  • 28% are having difficulty concentrating
  • 20% are taking longer to accomplish a task

And in a quick poll taken before the webinar, Steelcase found the following to be the top three things people find difficult about working from home:

  • Missing people (29%)
  • New pressures and stresses based on home-basis of work (25%)
  • Lack of choice, autonomy and variety in their experiences (21%)

The science behind why workers are feeling so drained

During the webinar, Gary Strehlke, Wellbeing Navigator at Steelcase, shared insights from neuroscience on how people have experienced the pandemic:

“When the brain is exposed to stressors that it deems to be harmful, the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain responsible for executive function - shuts down and the amygdala - the emotional part of the brain - takes over.

The amygdala sends signals to the rest of the body to prepare for some kind of threat. That’s great when a lion is trying to attack us, but when we’re sitting at a computer trying to do cognitive work, it’s not the most appropriate.”

The return to work

"Wellbeing happens when there is an intersection between our physical, cognitive and emotional health — safety is foundational to all three."


Organisations need to take action to ensure that:

  • Physically - People can work in places where they are able to stay healthy overall and minimise exposure to pathogens that cause illness. 
  • Mentally - People are not in fear for their personal safety because that distracts them from being focused and productive.
  • Emotionally - Everyone needs to feel safe at work. They need to be confident that their employers have done everything possible to create a safe environment — especially for those who may be at higher risk.

But why might people want to return to the workplace? 

  • For innovation - going back to the office means the ability to be stimulated by new ideas and have richer collaboration than virtual meetings can support
  • For sensitive situations - you can pay attention to non verbal cues, be especially empathetic and work through tough conversations
  • For motivation - we tend to draw more energy from the group around us and feel a common sense of purpose when we show up together (the bandwagon effect)
  • For wellbeing - likely to have better ergonomic support and get support for all the different ways we need to think and work throughout the day, as well as gain emotional support from others
  • For a break - a chance to step away from the home and rebuild boundaries between home and work

What to expect when people return to work

When people do return to the workplace, they may experience feelings of disorientation. The post-COVID workplace won’t be the same as it was before. People will have to get used to new rules and patterns of behaviours, such as walkway systems and temperature checks on arrival, as well as new configurations of the workspace.

This changed environment will require more conscious thought in terms of how people are productive and how they are able to flex throughout the day. So there may be a short period of adjustment before people are back to performing at their best.

But on the positive side, there are many benefits of people coming back to the workplace after the pandemic:

  • New bonds - people who didn’t know each other so well before the pandemic now have a shared experience that could bring them closer together
  • Restoration of memory - being back in the office triggers reminders of thoughts and ideas that may have been forgotten
  • Deposits for social capital - being around colleagues impacts workers’ sense of belonging and feelings of trust and safety
  • Ergonomic support - supportive office task chairs improve physical wellbeing
  • Rejuvenation - feeling energised from being back in the office and surrounded by colleagues

Thriving with the transition

Tracy and Gary stress the importance of determining flexible working strategies as people return to the workplace. These conversations should be taking place between every worker and their supervisor:

  • Define terms - Organisations want people to come back and be productive, but what does it mean to be productive? Equally, what does flexibility mean? Workers and their supervisors need to be aligned on what these terms mean so they both know what is expected.
  • Identify metrics of success - What does success look like? Is it how many emails we respond to or how quickly we respond to them? Is it the output? Or the quality of the output? 
  • Set SMART goals - SMART goals can help with delivering measurements around success and help keep people on track 

All these conversations should take place on an individual level, rather than looking at the workforce as a whole.

Supporting wellbeing when working from home

As people continue to work from home, organisations have a responsibility to ensure people are equipped to do it well. This may mean providing workers with a comfortable ergonomic chair as well as helping them to assess the setup of their working space, such as whether their computer is at the right height or is causing them to slouch or overstretch.

At an individual level, the hosts stress that the most important thing is to keep moving. On average, people working from home are sitting roughly 2 hours and 40 minutes longer per day than people that work in the office. So make sure you schedule time to get up and move around or go out for a walk.


"Our experiences and responses today will have a significant ripple effect for years to come."

For many organisations, a lot of uncertainty remains over when workers will come back to the office, and indeed, what that office might look like. What’s most critical is that organisations are prioritising the wellbeing of their workers, wherever they work.


The Post-Covid Workplace

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