How to balance FOTO and FOMO in hybrid work

Anja Bojic

Last updated on: May 22, 2023

As more and more companies “get back in the saddle” and try to establish their “new normal”, the hybrid work model becomes the epicenter of most work arrangements. And while the hybrid work culture might be here to stay, it still represents a major organizational shift and a challenge to most businesses, employers, and employees. 

Recent research and statistics reveal that the latest work arrangements have positively impacted productivity and efficiency. Yet, there might be another side to this story, one that is (intentionally or not) being overlooked. 

Last year has shown that employees are any company’s most valuable asset — thanks to them, most companies have managed to stay afloat even in the hardest of times. While some worked from the office and some (or the majority of them) worked from their homes, they kept businesses operational. But, how have the employees taken the new work shift? Have they managed to easily transition from being in-office employees to fully remote workers? And now, when some are expected to go back to the office, how are they coping? Is the new hybrid work arrangement actually working for them? 

Stay with us as we define hybrid work, with a special emphasis on two terms: FOTO (fear of the office), and FOMO (fear of missing out). We’ll go on to explore the importance of these two notions and try to provide practical solutions for balancing them in hybrid work settings. 

FOTO and FOMO cover

What is hybrid work?  

Hybrid work is a special work arrangement that allows employees to have a flexible working schedule by combining in-office and remote work. In this type of work environment, employees can choose when they want to work in the office and when they want to work from home. Considering there is no one-size-fits-all hybrid work model, every company should try to create a unique hybrid workplace based on the specific needs of the company and the needs of its employees. Yet, most companies will have a two-tier workforce on their hands — the ones gravitating toward remote work and those leaning toward returning to the office.

A survey conducted by Pew Research found that about 54% of people would like to keep working from home. Moreover, the public opinion is that the development of hybrid working has indeed brought remarkable changes to the conventional workplace organization. Overall, most businesses agree that the hybrid work arrangement comes with a few benefits:

  • Flexibility in choosing the optimal workplace 
  • Increased employee productivity
  • Better collaboration and communication between in-office and remote employees
  • Stronger relationships among employees
  • Improved employee mental health
  • Better outcomes 

Now, where there are some points to praise, there are others to criticize as well. 

In the case of hybrid work, we can highlight two particularly intriguing peculiarities: FOTO (fear of the office) and FOMO (fear of missing out). To better understand the two concepts, we reached out to Liane Davey, a psychologist, author, and business strategist, and Christy Pruitt-Haynes, a consultant and facilitator. 

💡  To improve the state of your hybrid work arrangement, check out our extensive piece on hybrid communication: Hybrid communication: challenges, advantages, and strategies to know

What is FOTO (fear of the office)?  

Fear of the Office

As companies heal and get settled in their newly established work settings after a tough year, most employees have a worry or two on their minds. While going back to the physical office does sound wonderful to many, some employees have greeted this shift with a certain dose of fear and find it hard to grasp. This has been labeled as FOTO or fear of the office, but it encompasses much more than fear — it’s a set of complex feelings including uncertainty and anxiety about what will happen once you return to the office. 

How and when did FOTO emerge? 

Both Davey and Pruitt-Haynes agree that FOTO came with the pandemic. Davey says:  

“I suspect that FOTO emerged after the pandemic made it clear that offices are, for many people, optional. We can be productive, collaborate, and go about our business without ever needing to go to the office. Now that working from home has become negotiable, rather than non-negotiable, there are people who dread the commute, the chaos, and the conversations of office life.” 

Pruitt-Haynes supports this view as well: 

“I believe FOTO came about recently as a result of so many employees working remotely during the pandemic. It gained popularity from people being exposed to a new way of working that, for some, particularly those who in some way felt marginalized in the workplace, felt safer and less threatened while working remote. The idea of returning to their “old normal” of working in the office conjures images of not being invited to lunch, being left out of important decisions, and feeling tokenized. All of those feelings made working difficult and the idea of returning to what they now know doesn’t have to be a part of their daily reality, induces fear.”

These seem like fair points to consider — especially in a hybrid work environment. Yet, based on recent developments in the world of business, FOTO won’t go away that easily, so not recognizing and addressing it properly can become a serious obstacle to employee productivity, well-being, and the way they interact with others. Why lose quality workforce over FOTO?

FOTO in a hybrid office

While for most hybrid employees FOTO is a complete unknown, Pruitt-Haynes confesses she had experienced it long before the concept rose in popularity:

“Years ago, I was in a situation where I became afraid of the office, long before that was a term that existed. Leadership wasn’t transparent or supportive and created a situation where I was more focused on protecting my peace than doing my work. After several attempts to create a different reality, I chose to leave. I wish virtual work would have been an option then.”

Although FOTO indeed is a novelty in hybrid work, many employees have been exposed to it without even knowing it. What’s different now is that once they were given a chance to experience a different reality — the one in which working from home isn’t an impossibility — many employees realized they too had FOTO — they just didn’t know how to define it. 

On the other hand, Davey admits FOTO to be a completely new phenomenon to her: 

“FOTO is new to me. Although I think of myself as an extrovert, I’ve relished the chance to control my own schedule, write in my comfy clothes, and keep most of my socialized to a limited number of hours a day.” 

As someone who has been working from her home for years, I find both Pruitt-Haynes’ and Davey’s remarks to cast a new light on the whole notion of FOTO. The complexities surrounding it are far deeper than we realize. But I believe it’s paramount to allow each employee to cope with FOTO in a way that works for them and not put additional pressure on them.

Common causes of FOTO

While there’s no way to predict what effect FOTO will have on each employee, there might be more uniformity in what’s causing it. In most cases, FOTO can be triggered by the following:

  • Getting infected: Despite the vaccine rollout across the globe and improved sanitation conditions, the fear of infection remains the primary barrier to a successful return to the office. 
  • Settling in the new work environment: Most employees are yet to adapt to the new work models that have had their breakthrough in the previous months. These include remote-first, remote-friendly, remote-only, and hybrid work models.
  • Disrupting the work-life balance: While working from home, most employees came up with a suitable schedule that allowed them to work productively and have some extra time for non-work-related activities. 
  • Financial concerns: Thanks to remote-based work, many employees managed to save money on commute and daycare expenses. However, this is due to change as they return to the office.  
  • Mental health concerns: Many have been traumatized by losing loved ones during the pandemic. This has raised a new issue in the business world — are businesses prepared to provide adequate mental health support to employees?

What is FOMO (fear of missing out)?

Although it seems like we’re just making up words here, there is a story behind all this, I promise. FOMO actually stands for fear of missing out and according to Davey, it’s not an entirely new phenomenon in the business world:

“FOMO has been around for a long time and is a natural extension of our human need to feel like we belong. I’ve always had to manage my FOMO because I’m a social person. I don’t like to know that I’m missing from what might be an interesting, valuable, or juicy conversation. That’s especially an issue if I think I’ve been excluded from it.”

Davey’s observations seem quite relatable and nicely sum up how the majority of employees may be feeling at work, myself included. What’s more, her insightful remarks point to a very interesting development among employees, a certain conflict between FOTO and FOMO. 

How and when did FOMO emerge?

Although FOMO has been with employees long before FOTO, Pruitt-Haynes believes that its effects have recently been intensified: 

“There is a concern that developing the connections and skills necessary to be successful is difficult without face-to-face interactions. The concept of out of sight out of mind rings true for many, leading them to wonder if the physical distance created by remote work will stall their career and cause them to miss out on opportunities.”

All of this sounds so familiar, and from the perspective of a year-long remote worker — so true. FOMO seems to have been a silent companion to many, feeding our worm of doubt and creating a barrier to doing our best work. 

FOMO in a hybrid office 

Davey finds hybrid work settings to be challenging and thinks they can play into employee negativity bias. She says: 

“It’s easy to think that everyone else has it easier than you, or that the people you don’t interact with are excluding you.” 

Letting your negativity bias take over would be much easier than making an effort to actually deal with FOMO. But that can’t be THE solution, don’t you agree? Pruitt-Haynes adds that establishing true connections and relationships can help overcome FOMO and supersede location and bias: 

“As a consultant, I have worked remotely for a number of years but, I am certain that not being on-site for clients created an uphill battle when it came to building rapport and gaining access to the people and information I needed to do my job successfully. I also knew that at times being the email on the screen as opposed to the person sitting in front of them benefited me. Ultimately, I worked to perfect my rapport-building skills and my ability to connect with most anyone by any method (in person or by phone/zoom).” 

Common causes of FOMO

Although each employee has their own fears and anxieties, FOMO too can be caused by several things. Some of them are: 

  • Working hours: Most employees have gotten pretty comfortable working from their homes and would probably find it hard to return to the conventional 9 to 5 work schedule. 
  • Career advancement: More often than not, employees who choose to work from home on some days feel they are victims of proximity bias and are missing out on potential promotions because they are less visible to upper management.
  • Workplace culture and office life: For many remote employees, going back to the office would probably require adapting to the workplace culture and office life all over again, including dress code and other office rules. 
  • Employee comparison: Although unconsciously, employees often compare themselves to their teammates, putting more pressure on themselves and their overall performance.  
  • Flexibility stigma: Some remote and part-time employees might feel like they are the center of discrimination and negative perception due to their choice to work flexibly. They feel as if they aren’t contributing enough and that their work isn’t credible, making them perform poorly, demotivating them, and ultimately leading to negative career outcomes.

The importance of FOTO and FOMO for hybrid work settings 

Both FOTO and FOMO are equally relevant for further developments in the field of workplace and employee management. While no one can know what the future holds, working towards overcoming FOTO and FOMO will bring ease to most employees and direct their attention to creating a nurturing work environment, perfecting themselves, and doing a better job. 

Pushing serious issues under the rug has never brought anything good, and the same will be true in this case as well. Instead, why not try to be upfront about your fears and be willing to surmount them? 

💡 Managing hybrid and remote teams can be challenging, especially when your employees come from different cultures. Check out our text on perfecting cross-cultural communication at work here: How to perfect cross-cultural communication at the workplace

Balancing FOTO and FOMO in hybrid work arrangements

Minimizing the effects of FOTO and FOMO in hybrid work won’t be a walk in the park for every company, yet it will be beneficial in the long run. By reflecting on her life situation, Davey concludes that balancing FOTO and FOMO will boil down to being clear about what you want in life:

“At the heart of the solution to both issues is clarity about what I want in life and what matters most to me. Being really clear on what I want to say “yes” to has allowed me to realize that there are meetings and social events that I am better off avoiding. At the same time, being clear on what matters most helps me be deliberate about when face-to-face time in the office is the right thing to do.”

To help employers and employees balance FOTO and FOMO in hybrid settings, we’ll share some handy tips. 👇

Tips for employers  

Although many companies have allowed remote work and managed remote teams even before the pandemic, balancing a hybrid workforce is uncharted territory for most employers. While there is no universal formula that can help them manage their staff’s FOTO and FOMO, Davey believes that something can be done: 

“Organizations can really help people manage both FOTO and FOMO by developing guiding principles to help people decide when it’s right to show up and when it’s best to give it a pass.” 

Here are the principles employers can follow to achieve balance.  

1. Explain your choice 

Before welcoming your employees back, you should try to give them a valid reason to return to the office or to keep working remotely. Explaining why you opted for a hybrid work arrangement or a remote-based one will give them clarity and make them realize you have really thought this through. Plus, if they understand WHY they have to come to the office or WHY they have to work from home, the whole process would feel less like an obligation and more like a well-considered decision. 

2. Maintain regular communication 

Staying in touch with your employees regardless of their work location is an essential aspect of a hybrid work setting. In most cases, hybrid work will thrive on asynchronous communication, which has been made possible thanks to the development of communication technology. This covers various types of apps and tools that enable effective communication and collaboration among in-office and remote employees. 

For example, a team messaging app like Pumble will provide your employees with a super intuitive tool for maintaining real-time communication, exchanging files, and collaborating more productively. 

Communicating in Pumble
Communicating in Pumble

💡For employers who want to improve communication among their employees, we’ve got a useful guide to help: How managers can improve team communication

3. Provide flexibility, if possible 

Employers should know that each employee will react differently to whatever is going on at work. Pruitt-Haynes believes that providing them with options to decide what is best for specific situations could help.

When given flexibility and room to actually think their decisions through, employees will feel happier about going to work and ultimately perform better. This particularly applies to choosing the work location, she adds: Providing autonomy that allows employees to choose the work location best for them helps each person to feel more secure and able to do their best work.” 

4. Keep your employees involved 

With a hybrid workforce, each company has to make sure to keep all employees involved in all company activities, be they formal or informal. Although this might seem like a hard thing to do, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. 

Most present-day companies have learned that keeping their employees engaged can be done even if they are separated by several time zones. Occasional online team building and bonding activities, both online and in-person, are a great way to keep employees connected and secure their sense of belonging. 

5. Respect your employees’ decisions

Showing your employees that you respect their decisions will make them feel heard and appreciated. The whole point in going hybrid is to let your employees choose when to work from the office and when to work from home but still maintain great results. 

While this might not be what you planned on doing initially, It’s your job to help your employees keep their anxieties in check and support their choices. It will reduce their pressure and allow them to work more productively.

6. Provide in-office and remote employees with equal opportunities

Proximity bias can be a great deal breaker for hybrid companies. A good way for employers to avoid that is to provide both in-office and remote employees with equal opportunities for career advancement. 

According to Pruitt-Haynes, the solution to this might be in companies that value results over the process

“When that is present, leaders tend to embrace diverse work styles and locations, opting instead to focus on the output. Doing so mitigates against distance bias preventing in-person employees from being favored when it comes to work assignments and opportunities.”

7. Ensure employee wellbeing

The pandemic has had a great impact on many people across the globe — so many have lost someone they love. This has now put forward a great, but often disregarded, aspect of successful companies — employees’ mental health. 

A comprehensive health plan that covers mental health services will be a great stimulus for most employees. Investing in your staff’s mental health will pay off in the long run — through improved employee performance and productivity

8. Conduct (anonymous) surveys to gather information

Finding out how your personnel is feeling about the whole “come back to the office/keep working from home” policy will be beneficial for planning your next steps. So many things can be affecting your employees — so the easiest and quickest way to find out what’s on their minds is to conduct a survey

By conducting a survey, you’ll quickly get valuable insight into everyone’s feelings, fears, and opinions. However, not every employee will be comfortable sharing their thoughts, so going with an anonymous survey would be your safest bet.     

9. Give constructive feedback

It’s normal for most businesses to come across some communication barriers. The way you choose to deal with them will ultimately affect the success of your entire company and keep your employees put. 

This is where constructive feedback steps in — it has become an invaluable part of any successful business. Although people associate it with something negative, feedback is a powerful workplace tool that can affect employees’ development and performance. Even a casual “keep up the good work” can help employees feel appreciated and boost their productivity. 

10. Be supportive and understanding

Finally, as an employer, you should make sure your employees feel respected and supported in the workplace no matter where they choose to work from. Most employees would benefit from knowing that their employer would support and understand their decisions. 

Pruitt-Haynes feels that allowing individual team members to create their career path is the road to success: 

“Asking employees where they want to grow and develop encourages personal ownership of their growth plans and helps them feel less concerned about having their career stalled based on their work location or connection to others.”  

Tips for employees

Getting used to the new working conditions can be tough on employees, especially since hybrid work is an unexplored territory for most of us, too. Undoubtedly, some of us who got comfortable with working remotely might be anxious about returning to the office whereas others might be excited about the same thing. And while there’s no way to predict each employee’s behavior and actions, it seems to Davey that the life of employees would be much easier if we had “a few non-negotiables to get us past our anxieties.” 

But what else can employees do to keep their FOTO and FOMO in check? Let’s find out.  

1. Give yourself time to adapt

The first step towards becoming comfortable with your new work setting is to take your time. Nothing happens overnight, and this applies to a hybrid office setting as well. If you’ve been working from home for months and are now back in the office, you can’t expect to get used to it in a matter of days. 

To help yourself, you can do the following:

  • Acknowledge the company changes: Try to see the situation from your employer’s perspective and understand their choices. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes can shed new light on the entire situation and help you see the bigger picture behind it.
  • Process the changes: Once you have acknowledged all the changes, try to understand how these would affect you and your performance. If you realize that you wouldn’t be able to live up to the new requirements, this would be the time to talk to your employer and speak what’s on your mind. 
  • Accept and adapt: After you’ve processed everything that has changed, it would be a good thing to try to accept and adapt to the latest changes in your company. This step might be the hardest one, so don’t feel discouraged immediately. Make your peace with the changes in your own time. 

Regardless of your previous work arrangement, giving yourself time to adjust to a new one is important for minimizing the effects of FOTO and FOMO. 

2. Inform yourself about hybrid work  

If your company has chosen a hybrid work model, it will be good for you to learn more about what it entails. Don’t be afraid to ask your employer to give you more details about hybrid work, with a special emphasis on employee expectations and requirements.

If this isn’t an option for you, you can always consult your teammates. The chances are that someone has already done some research and could share it with you. Finally, you can look it up online, as the web is packed with articles and guides on remote and hybrid work.  

💡Check out our comprehensive guide on remote and hybrid work models right here: Types of hybrid and remote work models for your business

3. Acknowledge your fears 

An essential part of overcoming FOTO and FOMO will be acknowledging your fears and anxieties. You might be afraid of many things and that’s fine — but not addressing them and choosing not to handle them will prove detrimental to your performance in the long run.

Keeping your concerns in check might not be as easy as you’ve expected, yet it’s a crucial step for creating a stress-free work environment. Coming up with useful strategies to overcoming anxiety will help you manage your FOTO and FOMO and reduce the impact of work-related stress.

4. Be honest with your employer

Maintaining an honest relationship with your employer should be your top priority in any work setting. Both Davey and Pruitt-Haynes highlight the importance of transparency in the workplace. Pruitt-Haynes’ advice is pretty straightforward: 

“PROACTIVELY REACH OUT! I can’t stress that enough. Talk to your co-workers, managers, and direct reports. Build relationships so you remain top of mind regardless of your location.”

Honesty can be a powerful tool for overcoming communication barriers in the workplace. 

5. Recognize your triggers 

Recognizing what triggers your FOTO and FOMO will help you deal with them successfully. If you see that scrolling through company photos on social media or discussing your choice to work remotely/from the office makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t do it. 

Pruitt-Haynes is pretty direct about this: 

“If you are battling FOMO connect with a sponsor who can represent you and sing your praises when you aren’t present. If you are battling FOTO, prioritize your psychological safety and mental well-being. We all do our best work when we feel safe, protected, and supported.” 

6. Create realistic work-life boundaries

Although going remote made some employees reexamine their work-life boundaries, going hybrid will also require you to establish a new balance between professional and private life. 

While dissolving strict boundaries between work and private life can work for some, in most cases, it only causes stress and leads to burnout. 

If you are given the flexibility to choose your work location, you should create a reasonable schedule to incorporate all business and leisure activities. To avoid mixing business and free time, use your team chat app to set a status about your activities. 

Changing your status in Pumble
Changing your status in Pumble

7. Talk to your team members 

A good way to overcome FOTO or FOMO is to actively talk to your colleagues and other team members about what’s bothering you. Sharing is caring, especially in a work environment where each employee is in charge of their work schedule and place of work. 

Davey has a great piece of advice for handling this: 

“The best thing you can do is to share your concerns and find regular ways to connect with those who are working differently from you. Once you open up about your concerns and ask for others’ help, it gets much easier to relax and get back to work.” 

8. Seek help 

As Davey observed, asking for help when necessary will help employees feel more relaxed and lead to better outcomes. Even though most people find admitting that they need help to be a sign of weakness, it’s a very courageous thing to do. 

No matter if you need assistance with a work assignment or you need to talk to a professional about how you’ve been feeling lately, don’t hesitate to reach out. Feeling good about your place of work will greatly depend on your desire to overcome FOTO and FOMO. Dealing with work-related obstacles will help you feel more on your own at work and add to your sense of belonging.  

9. Ask for feedback, give feedback

A company with a good internal communication strategy will make sure that all employees feel free to share their ideas, thoughts, and suggestions about formal and informal company matters. Once again, feedback proves to be an irreplaceable part of any company culture. Remember that feedback is a two-way street: 

  • Employers should provide their staff with feedback to help them overcome issues affecting their effectiveness, productivity, or teamwork.  
  • Employees should give their employers feedback on the company organization, team members, or whatever they feel is standing in the way of their doing business successfully.

A lot can be achieved through constructive feedback, so don’t be afraid to tell your boss what bothers you — they might be dwelling upon the same issue.  

10. Reflect

Most employees tend to get immersed in work, especially if they have suddenly switched jobs or their company introduced other changes, like a hybrid work model. Giving yourself time to adapt is good, but reflecting on your progress after some time is crucial to understanding if this way of working is beneficial for you. 

Making an effort to find out what’s causing your FOTO or FOMO will help you solve deeper problems in the long term, Pruitt-Haynes concludes:

“Ask yourself why you have the fears you do and if they are based on negative treatment, discuss that with others so the organization has a chance to correct the situation. If it can’t be improved, decide what is best for you long-term and work towards that.” 

Final observations 

Although remote and hybrid work arrangements are here to stay, the future of work remains a mystery to most employers and employees. A lot has already been achieved in the field of workplace and employee management, yet the work is far from done. While some companies have taken the recent developments to their advantage, some are still learning and trying to handle common workplace issues, like fear of the office (FOTO) and fear of missing out (FOMO). 

As I make my final lines here, I realize that we all have to take a step back and reflect. Adapting to change takes time, let’s not forget that. Fostering transparency, honesty, and meaningful relationships won’t come quickly but it will be worth the wait. Until that happens, the best we can all do is to remember to take baby steps.

Author: AnjaBojic

Anja is a former Communication researcher and author at Pumble. Often found networking with other working moms, advocating mental health at work, and trying to be a present and engaged parent.

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