Five Ways To Help Employees Manage Return-To-Office Anxiety

2 August 2021

Think back to the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic when we were all suddenly forced to work remotely. It was disorienting and anxiety-inducing to abruptly be asked to work in a completely different style. As someone who was used to being in the office five days per week, it took me months to fully adjust. How should I structure my day? How should I interact with my team? How does this whole Zoom thing work? How do I maintain camaraderie with my colleagues? How should I dress to be comfortable but feel professional?

Now, consider that we are being asked to do it all over again.

Being asked to return to the office is creating many different types of anxiety among employees:

• Social anxiety: While working remotely, attire mattered less, there were no awkward hellos and small talk and filters could take the place of makeup.

• Logistical anxiety: From juggling family commitments to being available to wait for the cable repair person, figuring out how to adjust to less flexibility will pose hurdles for many employees.

• Professional anxiety: New hybrid work models leave employees uncertain about how their choices are being perceived by their managers and peers or how their amount of office time will impact their career.

• Routine disruption: They say if you do something daily for 21 days it becomes a habit, and if you continue it for another 90, it becomes a lifestyle change. Our day is made up of dozens and dozens of habits that have become embedded into our lifestyle that will need to be altered.

• Health anxiety: The threat of Covid-19 has waned, but it isn’t gone, and vaccines are not 100% effective so people may still feel nervous about returning to an office, even at reduced capacity.

Why Does Anxiety Around Returning To The Office Matter?

We are already beginning to see challenges around recruitment and retention as companies call employees back into the office. Some employees have moved locations and do not want to move back. Others are jumping to companies that are retaining greater flexibility. As an executive in the recruiting industry, I see the high volume of talent in the marketplace every day.

Only by making the return to the office as positive and productive as possible do companies have the best chance of retaining top talent in a job market with as much movement as we are currently seeing. Here are five tools you can consider using to reduce anxiety over returning to the office:

1. Communicate Early And Often

If you know you are going to want your employees back in the office after Labor Day, now is the time to tell them, even if you haven’t ironed out the details. Give employees as much lead time as possible to organize childcare, make plans to move back if they have relocated and begin to think through their new routine. Communicate updates as they become available.

2. Consider A Phased Return

It could be beneficial to have employees in the office less frequently to begin with, especially if there have been substantial changes to the office. In many of our offices we are eliminating dedicated desks and moving to a hoteling system where employees can reserve a desk and keep their personal belongings in a locker. That is going to a huge adjustment after working in a space they have full ownership of, so easing in may be helpful.

3. Meet Each Employee Where They Are

Give managers the discretion to be responsive to individual situations and needs of all kinds. Rituals created during the pandemic such as attending a child’s soccer game or going on midday runs have become critical to well-being for many people. Create a framework that is firm (it will be broader for some companies than others) and determine how much flexibility can be offered within it.

4. Reinforce The Benefits Of The Office

To shift from anxiety to excitement, your employees need to appreciate the benefit of returning. In my business, real-time updates on business activity can drive success in a way that cannot be replicated remotely. Actively point out the moments when being together in the office leads to big ideas and breakthroughs.

5. Hold Structured Team Events

Workplace friendships are the secret sauce for a happy workforce. Research shows employees at companies with a culture of friendship have dramatically higher engagement, satisfaction and company loyalty. The strength of workplace friendships may have lessened during the pandemic and many feel out of practice at socializing. Hold regular team events but skip the generic happy hours. Have a structured activity in place that will help employees interact without the pressure of striking up a casual conversation.

The return to the office may be bumpy and there is no perfect solution for this unprecedented challenge. Each company’s culture and workforce are unique, and it will require a certain amount of trial and error to fine tune a path forward. Listen to your employees with compassion. Solicit feedback. Be humble and make adjustments. Through sensitivity to the anxiety of your workforce, you can come out of this transition with a stronger employer brand and company culture that will keep talent loyal.

Article Published By: Forbes, “Five Ways To Help Employees Manage Return-To-Office Anxiety