From “mandates” to “guidelines”, universities across Australia are looking to enshrine a one-size-fits-all approach to working on campus.
There is mounting evidence that you cannot wind back the clock to the pre-COVID status quo of 9-to-5 office days as standard. Research is flipping up things like 70% of workers want to continue working from home and whether we should be remote or in office is the wrong question. While some organisations appear to be ‘suffering’ with a workforce that prefers to work from home and is demanding flexibility (how very dare they), others are embracing distributed teams as a core philosophy and prospering.
The return to “business as usual” (BAU), and what this means for our on-campus presence, has been energising for some. For others, however, it involves navigating a range of social and physical demands that were refreshingly absent during the pandemic-induced lockdowns.
We are both introverts, and we’re viewing this return-to-office phase through our introverted lenses. We acknowledge that this is only one of many facets of life and identity that is affected by organisational demands to be physically present and accounted for.
Instead of rushing back to the pre-COVID status quo, let’s take a moment to consider the folks for whom the glorification of being (physically) present in the office has long made us uneasy, if not completely excluded. From our introverted point of view, it’s not that the pandemic taxed our energy and made us crave solitude. Solitude, or having fewer people around in general, was something we desired long before the lockdown(s) granted us permission to work in a way that suited our innate preferences. Perversely, we had more freedom to optimise our work environment under lockdown than we did pre-COVID when office attendance was the norm and quieter times had to be planned and sometimes covertly engineered.
Many organisations – not just universities – tout the return to business as usual as universally beneficial: a vehicle for collaboration, team-building, and fellow-feeling. This ignores the fact that these qualities can and do exist in online spaces. In fact, fruitful collaborations require a lot more planning and cultivation than physical proximity alone can possibly achieve.
There’s something about the equation of physical presence with productivity that really grates on us. We know we do our best work when surrounded by the quiet company of our own thoughts, free from interruptions. Yet on-campus life is typically anything but – from the corridor chats, to ad hoc knocks on the door or, worse still, the constant buzz of the open office. These spaces and modes of interaction cater mostly to extroverts (we know, we know – it’s #NotAllExtroverts) and leave us introverted types feeling taxed, overstimulated and, by the end of the day, exhausted.
An in-person work-life requires us to be constantly “on” in a way that working remotely does not. The awareness that at any moment we might be interrupted or forced to engage in small talk demands a level of alertness that saps us of precious energy. This is in contrast to the online space, where interactions are necessarily more intentional and the immediacy of our availability is, to a point, mediated by email and apps like Teams or Zoom.
This is not to say that introverted researchers don’t enjoy their forays onto campus and in-person meetings and events, or that there isn’t a place for on-campus interactions. We’re not recluses. What we do wish for is balance and choice – and an acknowledgment that any balance is highly individual and unlikely to be achieved through a mandated number of days on campus.
This requires trust and understanding. Trust and understanding that while other colleagues may choose to go onto campus every day and be energised by the experience, we introverts visit less frequently in order to carve out the recovery time that such workplace performativity inevitably demands. An understanding from our peers and superiors that our work – and indeed our selves – are better for it also wouldn’t go astray.
So, what might such a “balanced” approach look like? How can we embrace the flexibility that COVID ushered in in a way that caters to more people’s preferences? Here are some of our suggestions, which speak to us as introverts and would also cater to a range of colleagues who may have other conditions, commitments, and necessary restrictions that hinder their ability or desire to be present on campus.
- Promote choice in engagement mode and level
- Offer people a choice of in-person or online attendance at events and meetings. Depending on the format, consider whether an open invitation to turn cameras off would be appropriate. Particularly in large-scale, presentation-style meetings, “cameras off” provides the chance for everyone to focus on the content rather than getting caught in a feedback loop of moderating their facial expressions. Most introverts like playing in the chat boxes of any platform; this form of engagement and community-building is often overlooked or devalued.
- Normalise decompression and recovery time after “big-ticket” in-person events (hello, conferences and writing retreats!)
- Again, it’s not that we dislike in-person events. In fact, the gathering of researchers who share our interests in contexts like conferences are perhaps one of our favourite types of in-person activities because they promote deep thinking and engagement with new ideas. But it comes at a cost. While the extroverts may flock to the conference dinner and the post-conference drinks, circulating among the various groups like moths to so many flames, we quietly trail along in the company of our pre-vetted conference buddies, understanding the social events to be a necessary albeit taxing part of the conference experience. When our introvert is taxed, the relative invisibility provided by remote work is crucial to being able to recharge. Note: Invisible doesn’t mean unavailable or not working. In fact, when we’re taxed, we’re better able to focus on producing good work if the social demands of the office (and especially the open office) are temporarily removed.
- Discard the assumed hierarchy of in-person collaboration trumping online collaboration
- Notwithstanding the other challenges of remote working during lockdown where home was often simultaneous with “work” and “school”, remoteness was not only compatible with team-building, communication, and wellbeing, but these aspects of our work lives were enhanced for many introverted types. If such things are achievable under lockdown conditions, they are certainly achievable in these “post-COVID” times.
Lockdown may not have been a choice but the flexibility to work remotely for those who want or need to should be.
We all have limited energy, and different activities are taxing for some more than others. If introverted types expend energy on constantly being visible and present in the office with all that entails, we’ll have less energy for other areas of our work. Sometimes, being in the office is the best use of our energy but it shouldn’t be the default expectation. Naturally, the opposite may be true for others, who gain energy from being around other people and for whom too much enforced remote working may prove draining or isolating.
So, where to from here?
Let’s prioritise giving people choices. Let’s not mandate office presence or campus attendance because we can.
Trust your staff and students to manage their energy in the way they know best and ensure that being remote or online doesn’t mean second-best levels of engagement and connection.
Allow the introverts among us to determine how we can best perform our role and contribute to our team. We are particularly skilful at introspection – we know when our energy is flagging, and when we can withstand the demands on-campus life brings.
While this post is focused on our introverted tendencies and how ‘normal’ office life brings with it an everyday bundle of stress for us, the bigger consequences of this forced return to business as usual is the continued devaluation and exclusion of staff for whom ‘in person’ attendance is always a challenge, or an impossibility. Why do this if we don’t have to?