Organisations are failing to prepare for the “psychological risks” of bringing staff back into the workplace, according to a leading businesses psychologist who has predicted that the repatriation to the office will be more distressing than the first lockdown that abruptly confined millions of workers to their homes.

The warning comes as the easing of lockdown restrictions has employers examining in greater detail their plans for the coming months. While some have said they want all staff back in the office as soon as is practical, the majority are putting together strategies for blended working arrangements.

Stuart Duff, a partner at workplace consultancy Pearn Kandola, said it appears most organisations have gone “straight to the practical” in putting together a system focused on where staff will be, and when they will be in specific locations. He argues that the more important matters are “the stuff that goes on beneath the surface”, and it is this that is being neglected.

“There are psychological risks here that have to be managed,” he said. “The first is that we create a kind of ‘inside-outside’ split in the way we operate.”

Individuals are inclined to build emotional trust with colleagues they see on a regular basis, which will be those who have a similar pattern of office-based work. Others with whom staff have little or no face-to-face time will be on the ‘outside’ group, even though these ‘others’ may spend an equal amount of time in the office, but on different days.

READ MORE: Working from home 'beneficial'

This naturally leads to staff, including managers, placing a higher value on those ‘inside’ their group. Unless people are made aware of this unconscious bias, and given support to overcome it, lines of communication will be damaged with a resulting decrease in collaboration.

“There is a need to equip managers to cope with these changes, and I don’t think most organisations are thinking about that,” Mr Duff said.

Trust is a significant issue. Recent research from Durham University Business School found that companies with a high level of mutual trust between management and employees are much more likely to have greater economic and financial performance.

Based on data from 28 countries, including the UK, researchers found that if employee trust increased by one unit on a scale of one to five, the likelihood of observing a particularly good economic/financial situation increased by four to five percentage points. Furthermore, the likelihood of observing the highest relative labour productivity in comparison with others in the same sector increased by six percentage points.

Lila Skountridaki, a lecturer in organisation studies at the University of Edinburgh Business School, notes that managers are more inclined to be based in the office, and generally prefer their people to be visible and accessible as well.

READ MORE: Help at hand for those making the switch to hybrid working

While this might bolster the argument for a blanket return of all staff to the office on a full-time basis, the pandemic has increased the importance most people place on their wellbeing and sparked a renewed push for better work-life balance. Both can be facilitated by the option of working from home for at least part of the time, which repeated surveys have shown is the preference of most workers.

“During the pandemic, productivity among home-based workers has typically been reported to be higher, or at least not decreasing,” Ms Skountridaki observes. “A lot of people say they can concentrate better without the disruptions that come in the office.”

Of course this is not the case for everyone, particularly those in shared accommodation or who don’t have ample room for a workspace at home. Ms Skountridaki predicts there will be quite a bit of “trial and error” in the coming six to 12 months as employers and individuals attempt to strike the correct balance.

Mr Duff goes further, saying though he would like to think this is the “start of a revolution”, he expects there will be fewer hybrid workers in 12 months’ time than current surveys suggest. In any event, the upcoming transition won’t be easy.

“This is going to be more of a shift than it was at the start of lockdown,” he said. “Then it applied to everybody and was mandatory, whereas this is going to involve a lot more ambiguity, and as humans we don’t like that – we prefer binary yes or no choices.”