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How to help ease staff’s back-to-the-office jitters

Posted by Kanika Sinha

November 10, 2021    |     5-minute read (839 words)

The prospect of returning to the office after some 1 ½ years of remote work is causing trepidation for many employees. A recent survey by The Wall Street Journal found that 82% of its 300 working adult respondents were feeling anxious about going back to the physical workplace. 

For some people, the idea of seeing colleagues again in person after months of relative isolation is overwhelming. Others are unsettled about returning to rigid routines and long commutes. 

Complicating the matter is that not every employee has experienced the pandemic the same way. They may have different opinions about safety precautions and varying levels of comfort with the vaccine. Some may be dealing with the loss of a loved one to COVID-19.

Fortunately, there are several things managers can do to rally staff back to the office and emerge from the transition with a stronger company culture. These six recommendations for addressing employees’ fears about returning to the workplace center around prioritizing their mental health. 

Acknowledge the anxiety

Along with accenting the positives of returning to in-person work, managers need to acknowledge employees’ anxiety. Start by encouraging open communication to discuss concerns and best practices before worries fester. 

Next, make plans to connect regularly with team members one-on-one to talk about their concerns. Letting employees know they are heard can reduce anxiety and improve morale.

Find out how employees are feeling 

Anxious employees may not feel comfortable speaking honestly about how they feel. To get around that, managers can conduct anonymous surveys to assess employee sentiment.

Use those insights to address your staff’s concerns. If several employees mention safety considerations, managers can communicate how they will be handled or even lobby senior leaders to ramp up safety protocols.

Managers can also consider implementing a system that lets employees nonverbally communicate their level of comfort with physical contact. Color-coded wristbands or lanyards, for example, allow employees to express their own comfort level and to be mindful of whether their colleagues are comfortable.

Allow for ambivalence

When employees share their concerns, either openly or anonymously, managers have to be ready for people to have mixed and complex feelings. It may be tempting to convey unwavering optimism about returning to the office as a way to assuage doubt, but doing so inadvertently pressures employees to hide their negative feelings. Modeling emotional ambivalence as a manager can foster a culture where employees are better at adapting and pivoting. 

Discard the notion of a one-size-fits-all approach

Attitudes about returning to the office likely differ by age group. Younger employees tend to be more worried about what they perceive as potentially stunted careers and may be willing to get back to their desks sooner. Older employees may be more nervous about exposure to COVID-19. 

In a survey by Onrec, 60% of employees across age groups said they would consider quitting their jobs if they could not work from home or were forced to work in the office more than they wanted to. But 26% of workers from ages 18-24 said they might leave if managers canceled work-related social events. 

Your employees are also likely grappling with different challenges, such as child care, caring for older parents or health conditions, to name a few. That means the types of support they need from employers will vary and that an all-purpose “people policy” won’t work. Ideally, managers can tailor employee-support approaches to each team member’s particular challenges.

Consider experiments and pilot programs

Some employees are hesitant to return simply because they’re just sure what to expect or how they’ll adjust. The idea of going back to the usual five days a week at the office may seem overwhelming and abrupt.

To counter this, consider running a pilot program or letting individual employees experiment with different ways of working to see what is effective (and what isn’t). For instance, managers might suggest the team or individuals try going in one day a week for several weeks, then check in to see how it went and troubleshoot from there. Aim to provide the flexibility employees need to do their best work. That is the ultimate goal, after all.

Be compassionate

Employees will expect compassion and humanity from employers during this challenging time. No matter what procedures need to be followed, managers should make sure to keep empathy at the forefront. Aim to bring humor and joy to employees in recognition of the breadth of the experiences and losses they may have endured during the pandemic. 

In addition to easing staff’s re-entry anxiety, empathy from managers is conducive to engagement and loyalty, helping to set the stage for business recovery.

Wrap-up

The return to the office is almost certain to have ups and downs. There is no perfect solution for this unprecedented time. Every company’s culture and workforce are different, and it may require trial and error to fine-tune a path forward through yet another transition. But the groundwork begins with managers who solicit their employees’ feedback, listen with compassion and make adjustments accordingly.

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