Short Courses

Returning to The Office: A Social Psychology Perspective

Raluca David, University of Edinburgh Short Courses Teaching Fellow in Psychology, highlights the pros and cons of returning to the traditional work environment through the lens of social psychology.

Raluca David - Psychology Teaching Fellow University of Edinburgh Short Courses

As more and more of us are being called back to work in our offices, sentiments are mixed.

Rightfully, people are still concerned about exposure to COVID-19. Others are concerned about starting to commute again.

But there is something more to it: something of a doubt about our sheer ability to do equally valuable and productive work from the office as we have done from home, as well as a concern with regard to the psychological sense of comfort with being in the office. So what is it all about, and why is there so much individual variability in the sentiment towards returning to offices?

Let us start with a basic fact about our social lives, which is that there are two factors that influence our social lives, and they influence it in interacting ways. On the one hand, the social situation influences how we behave. In social psychology, this was famously shown by Phillip Zimbardo in the controversial research of the Stanford Prison Experiment: if you put people in a social situation – such as, for Zimbardo, that of being prisoners or being guards – they will almost automatically model their behaviour according to it. But does that mean we can draw conclusions about the impact of offices – a social situation that gives us the role of productive workers - on actual productivity, and would those conclusions generalise and apply to everyone?

The simple answer is no. Because the other crucial factor – our individual characteristics – is just as important in determining our behaviour as the social situation is. And here’s the key part: the social situation and our individual characteristics interact in the way that they determine our behaviour. This means, for instance, that a social situation – such as returning to work in the office – will influence one person in one way, and another person in a different way, depending on those people’s individual predispositions. Those predispositions are of many different kinds: they can be personality traits, they can be emotional patterns, or they can be ability levels.

This disparity is seen in the contrast between two well-known social psychological phenomena: social facilitation vs. social inhibition. The mere presence of people around (such as colleagues sitting in their own chairs in a shared office, sometimes glancing over to us) will make some of us perform better, and make others perform worse than if they were by themselves. What dictates the difference are factors such as whether one is established or new in their job, how confident of a person they are, and what is their general anxiety level, for instance.

Employers might argue that we still need offices for group work. Or do we? The social psychological research on group work tells otherwise. More often than not, we perform worse when working in groups than when working alone. This could be due to social loafing: when we don’t pull our weight because we are not directly responsible for the group’s performance. Or it could be because of the bystander effect: when nobody in a group acts to solve a situation, even in an emergency, because there is a diffusion of responsibility. Or, even more fundamentally, it could be down to the process of decision-making itself in a group situation: if we see others, especially those in positions of authority, making mistakes, we start to doubt our own better judgement and we often end up making mistakes ourselves.

So what is the way forward then? Certainly, the first step is to acknowledge that neither individual productivity, nor individual well-being, and not even group productivity are necessarily always better in the physical office.

Most of us still want to go back to seeing our colleagues and getting out of the house on a regular basis – but it is a question of reflecting on when social facilitation (the improvement in performance due to presence of others) works, for whom it works, and how to make the best out of it.


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