Is Wellness Becoming a Back-to-Office Ploy?

Image credit: iStockphoto/AndreyPopov

Now that most economies are moving into the post-pandemic recovery phase, workers are gradually drifting back to the offices they vacated at the height of the crisis last year.

In Australia, research from Bastian RM/Pitcher Partners shows that in September 2020, one-third of the Australian workforce was doing their jobs at home, and that number has fallen to 23%. Another 55% are working from home at least one day a week.

In terms of future intentions, 13% of workers say they want to work at home full-time, while 67% want to do so at least one day of the week.

What employees want is often at cross purposes with employers. Many employers want a return to pre-pandemic conditions, with offices full of employees five days a week.

While some are happy to recalibrate given employee attitudes and the potential savings on office space, others are concerned about a lack of motivation and supervision and what that will mean to their businesses.

As a result, we see some interesting approaches from employers as they try and make the office a more attractive place for employees.

Wellness is no longer a perk

In Australia, there seems to be a new wave of workplace wellness. Some employers are introducing concepts like virtual reality meditation.

For example, at one Sydney office, the employer introduced a new app, called AtOne, which delivers immersive guided meditations.

Employees put on the VR headsets and take a mental journey through faraway scenes, from outer space to mountains and forests, before heading back to their desks and back to work.

Heart rate data is then collected from the employee while they are meditating. The analysis informs the employees if they are stressed, and the experience has the desired effect.

The jury is still out on workplace wellness programs. A 2019 U.S. study found that workplace wellness resulted in increased self-reporting health behaviors by workers who participated compared with those who did not. But there were no significant differences in health status after 18 months.

“These findings may temper expectations about the financial return on investment that wellness programs can deliver in the short term,” were the ultimate findings of the research.

Employee feelings matter

That may be true, but does it miss the point? In the current circumstances, the aim is not necessarily to improve workers’ health but to improve how they feel about returning to work.

In the current tension between employers and employees on this issue, if workers are dragged kicking and screaming back into the office, then that is a negative for culture and productivity.

Another study by Australia’s Fair Work Commission found that only 5% of Australian workers want to return to the office full time.

The implication of all this is that employers will have to do more to make the office a more desirable destination. As time goes by, this will become another differentiator in the war for talent.

Fad or fact?

In the meantime, some Australian employers are taking the initiative and trying out a few innovations.

One Melbourne-based health services company launched a daily breakfast bar for all 80 employees.

The Sydney office of a global software company have a shared wellness hub and an area for yoga and Pilates, while another area features table tennis and pool tables.

How all this will play out remains to be seen. Is it a fad, smacking of desperation on the part of employers, or will it become entrenched as business as usual?

What does seem clear is that as we move to the hybrid work model, the idea of the office and its function are in flux as stakeholders experiment to see what will work.

Innovation will be front and center in the medium term, and wellness might be one of the more prosaic ideas as the office struggles to re-invent itself post-pandemic.

Image credit: iStockphoto/AndreyPopov