As the latest wave of COVID cases subsides, companies are again revisiting a return to the office. What once was a common, familiar space, following two years of predominantly remote work, the office is an unknown environment leaving many employees anxious.
A Harvard Business Review article explains, “According to McKinsey, one out of every three employees surveyed said their return to the workplace had a negative impact on their mental health, citing feelings of anxiety, depression, or general distress. Others are anxious about social interactions. In addition to the real human toll, this stress has implications for productivity, engagement, and retention. For example, nearly 40% of workers would consider quitting if forced to return to their offices full-time, many of them younger workers.”
Employees will be returning to an office space that likely will look different than it did when they left in 2020 as many companies reconfigured spaces and renovated to accommodate social distancing and more integrated collaborative spaces that allow for hybrid meetings with some participants joining virtually while others are in the office. Kitchens and community spaces might also feel awkward as employees navigate new protocols and personal boundaries to protect the health of everyone.
The pandemic forced everyone to quickly adapt to working from home, and after two years, employees have developed new habits and ways of working. A return to the office might feel like a visit to a foreign country leaving some employees overwhelmed and concerned about the impact it will have on the way they now work.
According to the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey of 1,501 U.S. adult workers, “79% of employees had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey. Nearly 3 in 5 employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%). Meanwhile, 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and an astounding 44% reported physical fatigue—a 38% increase since 2019.”
While some employers have prioritized the mental health of its employees throughout the pandemic, a return to the office could offer companies that haven’t yet, an opportunity to rethink how they support employees to reduce burn-out and subsequent turnover.
Our team shares a few ways to ease the anxiety and stress for employees returning to the office:
- Slow Process
- Don’t rush everyone back at once. Develop a gradual timeline for the return – may be a hybrid schedule where employees rotate in the office every two days.
- Clearly outline and communicate expectations for behavior, attendance, production and protocols. Do not rely on one big email to the entire company. Divisions and departments should develop communications plans to remind employees of the new changes, reinforce expectations, and create space for employees to ask questions.
- New Habits
- Managers should consider how their teams might work together differently in the office following two years of remote work. What are some ways to foster collaboration and communication in person? Are there new habits that can be developed to help employees feel more comfortable in this new environment? How can you help employees adapt and plan for new expectations with what might be a hybrid experience with a rotating schedule – what will team meetings look like? How will employees collaborate on projects?
- Set Goals and Expectations
- Employees will feel more confident if they know that their managers recognize the challenges of this new way of working. Managers should talk to employees about their fears and individual expectations, as well as discuss goals and the steps needed to ensure they feel supported and valued during the transition.
We are all living in a world of constant change and though employees may seem to be pivoting and adapting well, managers should not take for granted that team members are okay. We can’t assume things can simply return to the way they were pre-pandemic. Employers need to actively communicate and listen to employees in order to oversee an efficient and positive transition.
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