How to Mindfully Help Employees Return to the Office

As we begin to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, many employees are having mixed feelings about returning to the office. Just as everyone became comfy working from their couch, now many are experiencing anxiety about transitioning back to their pre-Covid lives after a traumatic and already anxiety-inducing year. In fact, a recent study by the Harvard Business School found that 80% of remote workers don’t want to return to the office full time. One in three of the workers surveyed felt that their work performance had improved while working from home, and an additional third stated that they were actually able to be more focused on their work while working remotely. 

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that employees don’t ever want to see the inside of their cubicle again. Only 27% of workers said that they would prefer to stay remote full time, while 61% stated that they would prefer a combination of remote and in-person work, or a hybrid model. 

So what does this mean for employers and managers? As many of you know, a lot. Many employees are quitting their job in favor of one that allows them to stay remote which is putting many organizations in a serious bind, to say the least. In this constantly changing situation, employers and management are continually being nudged to respond and make changes to the way they’ve normally worked and interacted with employees. Do we shift to fully remote work? Will moving to remote work compromise our culture? Do we adopt a hybrid model to retain employees threatening to leave? For every company this obviously should be a very mindful decision that takes all of the unique aspects of your organization into consideration. However, there are a few things that you can adopt into your leadership style right now that will help ease your employee’s anxiety and strengthen your relationship with them through the transition.

Empower your Employees through Empathy

Expressing discomfort with an unmasked gathering of friends was uncomfortable enough for many of us– navigating these difficult conversations in our job, where our paycheck is potentially at stake, is even harder. In order to make your employees feel empowered to advocate for themself and their needs, a huge dose of empathy is needed as employers plan a return to the office. We have all struggled in this pandemic. Some have lost loved ones, have been sick, have known people who have been sick and now are being thrust back into our normal lives as if significant changes haven’t occurred. By being empathetic and actively listening to your employees, you can build trust and gain insight into not only what they think and feel but why they think and feel it.

Genuine & Transparent Communication

During this time of transition, it’s crucial that leaders communicate regularly, clearly and genuinely to ease employee anxiety and concern. According to Julie McKay, Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing Officer at PwC Australia, “Being transparent and honest about what a realistic return to the office might look like, and emphasizing the rationale behind new processes and procedures will help to build trust and demonstrate to employees that their wellbeing is a priority. The way these messages are delivered, including the language leaders choose to use, will have an impact on employee comfort and preparedness to return.”

Clear & Consistent Safety Guidelines

A major concern of many employees returning to the office is safety.  After living through a year in fear of contracting a potentially deadly virus, many aren’t jumping at the opportunity to be in close quarters with a lot of people again. A recent study by Eden Workplace even found that within another sample of workers, 85% expressed that they do want to return to the office, but only if proper safety precautions were in place. Understandably, employees want their employer to have clear safety guidelines and consistent expectations laid out for all staff upon return. In order to provide employees with certainty that you’re taking the health risks seriously, enact a clear and thorough workplace safety protocol, in line with CDC and other reputable guidelines, and make sure that it is being enforced consistently throughout the company.

Flexibility & Responsiveness

With so much still in flux, leaders need to remain flexible and responsive. While the United States is ramping up vaccination rates, many parts of the world are still struggling with the pandemic and variants are causing concern in many countries. Resist the temptation to make set-in-stone policies right away and try to respond to the needs of your team as the situation continues to change. If an employee expresses concern about the return to the office and a desire to work from home longer, maybe negotiate a trial period and evaluate the effectiveness before immediately saying no. In a constantly changing environment, you also have to be willing to constantly change and respond to the needs of your people.

Focus on the positive

Although it’s hard to give up the flexibility and ease of working from home, there are several advantages of resuming work in an office that working from home lacks. Although your cat might be a great Zoom photo-bomber, you just don’t have the same kind of camaraderie with them as you do with your favorite co-worker over lunch. By focusing on rebuilding social connections in the office you can curb the loneliness many experienced during lockdown, bringing back an essential part of human health into your employee’s lives. Spend time reconnecting with people in-person and make them feel at home and safe through a positive, open presence and all of the other good things mentioned above.

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