Welcome to the Age of FOMU (Fear of Meeting Up) Fears for physical safety have morphed into social anxiety. But could our collective FOMU leave work culture better off?
Last week, in the course of one day, I had two panic attacks. Well, okay, as someone who's had actual panic attacks — find me a year ago, dry-heaving on a subway platform en route to a job interview — that's not exactly what these were. They were more like flitting, flipping spasms of panic — somersaults of the stomach. And both times, they were in response to the prospect of going out into the world to meet up with people.
Instance A: I received a text from a dear friend whose wife had a baby since I saw them last, before the pandemic. He wanted my fiancé and I to come over for dinner to meet their baby. They live on the Upper West Side, and we live in Brooklyn, so not exactly walking distance — but hardly an insurmountable trek to make for people who just brought a human into the world. And yet: somersault.
Instance B: On a video meeting, my boss said he had some updates regarding our return to the office. He then said that we would not be returning to the office for some months, if ever. But in the instant between when he brought it up and when he delivered the news that we would not, in fact, be reuniting as a staff in our midtown office: somersault.
I know I'm not the only one who has developed some gut-level response to the idea of making plans with people or resuming old work routines that involve leaving the house, commuting and being around other people all day. The virus has killed hundreds of thousands, and the guilt of knowing you could expose someone more vulnerable is a powerful motivator to avoid social interactions. Then there's determining what is actually a safe way to socialize, navigating different people's comfort levels and generally fretting over perceived judgements. Everyone knows someone they think is too laissez-faire, and someone they think is unreasonably paranoid. As one friend told me recently, "At this point, I spend more time worrying about someone getting mad at me than actually getting the virus!"
Rhiannon Staples is the CMO of Hibob, a "people management platform" that enables employee growth and engagement. "We used to hear about the term FOMO, where people are afraid to miss out on events, gatherings and experiences for fear of not being part of the action," she says. "But since the pandemic, the opposite is true. People are avoiding gatherings at all costs due to FOMU — fear of meeting up. This is not only true for social gatherings, but also in the workplace. In a recent study we conducted at Hibob, we found that 45 percent of American workers are not comfortable with going back to work at the office."
Even apart from fear of getting sick or getting someone else sick, I think there are more subtle psyche shifts at play. As someone who worked from home for years, I am cognizant that the longer you go without talking to people, the more more difficult social interactions can feel. Add that to the confusion around acceptable ways to socialize, and it's a recipe for more people opting out.
"It's reasonable to expect that FOMU can be related to both fear and social anxiety," Staples says. "Interacting with others has a new set of rules and boundaries, which can create anxiety as people try to understand new norms and also set and enforce new boundaries themselves. If people cannot fully trust those in their circle, that can contribute to social anxiety and push them to want to stay at home. This can be stressful."
And lastly, in the work context specifically, I think there's something else driving FOMU.
I suspect most people don't actually want to go back to the way things were. Of course, they long for many aspects of life before Covid-19 — kids going to school, being able to gather freely with family, eating in restaurants and going to weddings and concerts. But they don't want to go back to the office five days a week, and that's what much of life was for a lot of people before the pandemic.
To be sure, many people who have worked from home throughout the pandemic are burning out right now because their companies haven't taken the importance of a remote work culture seriously. Transparency is vital, and employees need support and flexibility to feel empowered.
But people were trapped by the inflexibility of their old lives. Having spent all this time away from the office, it's hard to imagine going back to that full-time work-life. Staples says that she thinks the pandemic will permanently alter the culture of work, so businesses should start looking for in-between solutions.
"A hybrid work model is a great way to combat this cross between burnout from daily commutes and the feeling of being stuck at home with remote work," she says. "Companies can try staggered scheduling — having some teams come in half the week and other teams work from the office on different days — or giving employees control over how often they work from the office. At Hibob, we've built a "work from office' request into our platform so that companies can manage who is coming into the office and when."
Someday our FOMU and all the stomach somersaults that go with it will fade. But hopefully, the work culture it's set in motion — compelling employers to see workers as people with diverse needs — will not.