As vaccination rates rise, more and more employers are re-opening their offices after more than a year away. For many employees, this has created a great deal of uncertainty (and anxiety) about the future of work. Many surveys show that the preferred model for returning to the office is a hybrid one.
An international study conducted across 29 countries found that two-thirds of respondents want flexibility and, on average, employees would like to return to the office 2.5 times per week. The survey also found that 30% of employees were prepared to quit their job if forced back to the office full-time. Based on this and other anecdotal evidence, it appears that the model going forward will be a hybrid one.
And while the hybrid model appears to be the one that most organizations and employees are embracing, it is not without its challenges. Change is hard. And now that the return to the office is upon us, how do employers support the transition and manage the mental health concerns of their staff?
Define the Worries
A return to the office brings with it a whole host of new concerns. People feel safe working from home where they can control their environment. A return to the office brings the uncertainty of commuting on public transit with strangers whose vaccination status is unknown and being among colleagues in a shared office space for eight hours or more several times a week.
Employees may also feel anxious about what they are giving up. Working from home meant zero commute time, flexibility in their schedule, feeling more productive at home, fewer expenses, and casual dress. Returning to the office, even part-time, means disruptions to their newly established routines such as daytime exercise or picking children up from school.
To help ease the transition, employers will need to address employee concerns for the health and safety of themselves and their families prior to office reopening. This will include considerations regarding the physical environment, vaccination and masking policies, sick days, whether or not visitors may enter the office, and if any team members will be required to attend meetings or conferences outside the office.
It's best to start small. Bring back 20-25% of the office and gradually increase the number of people. Also, in-person meetings or collaborations could begin with one on one sessions and gradually increase to small groups before moving to larger teams. Larger meetings can remain a mix of in-person and virtual meetings.
Thought must also be given to office etiquette in the new environment. To help ease the transition, thoughtful employers will provide guidance on items such as setting personal boundaries including hugs and handshakes.
It’s important that management allows workers time to transition. According to this article, it may take team members anywhere from three weeks to three months to return to normal productivity.
Emphasize the positives
In addition to providing clear direction on safety protocols and helping ease the transition back to the office, emphasizing the positives of a return to the office may help some hesitant team members. Many people are looking forward to reconnecting with colleagues on a social level. Some because they really missed their work friends while for others working from home has been very lonely and isolating. For those with small children, the ability to concentrate on the task at hand and no longer be doing double duty is very appealing. There is also the benefit of a clearly defined boundary between work and home which may help some workers achieve better balance and avoid burn-out.
At the end of the day, even with all the advancements in technology, humans still form stronger bonds and greater trust when they spend time together in person whether sharing a meal or replaying the highlights of last night’s game.
Provide support for physical, mental, and financial wellbeing
Encourage employees to take regular breaks and emphasize the benefits of going outside or doing a physical activity even for a few minutes to help improve mood and feel better. Your reorganized office may include a stretching area or a meditation space. You want to disavow people of the notion that they need to be chained to their desks in order to appear productive now that they are among their colleagues again.
To help combat stress and anxiety related to returning to the office, ensure that employees are aware of and know how to access mental health and other supports provided by your company’s benefits plan such as Employee and Family Assistance Plans (EAP), and online counseling. In addition, it may be worthwhile providing management with a workshop on identifying and supporting mental health concerns in the workers they supervise.
Don’t forget that financial stress is a major contributor to mental health concerns. For those employees who now find themselves once again incurring commuting and other expenses, help with budgeting or general financial advice is likely to be appreciated. Ask your benefits advisor for assistance.
Lastly, now may be a good time to reassess your firm’s compensation and benefits offering. Attracting and retaining people in our new environment may require new or different support than before the pandemic. Over the last eighteen months, the trend toward greater flexibility and individualization has accelerated. The new rules may mean a need to include support for child or elder care, commuting subsidies, greater vacation allowances, or retirement benefits.
As with any change, returning to the office will likely provoke stress and anxiety. However, with a well thought out, strongly communicated plan most of the concerns will dissipate with time. Humans are highly adaptable. We were able to adjust to working from home overnight. And while that transition had its bumps, most of us adapted and now wish to continue to do so, at least on a part-time basis. So in the short term, employers who can help workers articulate their worries, provide a plan to address their concerns, offer a variety of supports, and emphasize the positives of returning to the office will have an easier time, build greater trust, and end up with a happier and more productive team.
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