How to Prevent the Return to Offices From Being an Emotional Roller Coaster
Leaders can take steps now to make employees feel supported and safe before they resume in-person work.
As more and more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, leaders and employees are starting to look ahead to a potential return to offices. Many organizations are considering a hybrid work model, in which teams come into the office a few days a week or a few key days a month. For employees who have felt isolated and siloed during the pandemic, the return to the workplace will be exciting. For those who have taken to remote work or have lingering health concerns, it will be anxiety-inducing. For many, it will be both. Simply put, the return to offices will be emotional.
As a leader, your role is to give your people as much certainty about the future as possible. And while no one really knows what the world will look like six months from now, there are a few steps you can take today to make your people feel supported and safe ahead of an eventual return to the workplace.
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Be transparent. Don’t wait to communicate what you’re thinking, even if there’s limited information to share. For example, go ahead and say, “We’re definitely going to be working from home through July and are considering shifting to a hybrid work model after that.” Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and saying something is far better than remaining completely silent. Even if you can’t offer a specific answer yet, your teams will feel comforted knowing that you’re not actively ignoring the issue.
As questions come up, answer them as honestly as you can. And once you do have a plan, make sure you fill managers in on all the details so they can communicate expectations clearly and confidently to their teams. Remember: The goal of transparency is to earn trust and reduce unnecessary stress.
Surface concerns early on. To support your people, start by getting a better understanding of where they are. Surfacing preferences and concerns early on can help you pull rather than push your teams back to the office. (After the past year, it will be nearly impossible to use the excuse that your organization is just not set up for remote work and that people need to be back in the office.)
You might send out a survey with questions like these:
- How many days a week would you like to work in the office?
- What will make the return to the office easier for you?
- Are there any extenuating circumstances you’re willing to share that might make a return to the office especially hard or scary for you?
- What types of work would you prefer to do from the office — for example, large staff meetings, new team meetings, brainstorming sessions, etc.?
- What types of work would you prefer to do from home?
Be sure to share the survey results. If you want employees to be in the office five days a week again, and the survey shows that employees want to be in the office two days a week, it’s a bad move to simply ignore that information. Instead, use it as a jumping-off point for honest conversations and productive compromise. Loop employee resource groups into those discussions to make sure any plans you put in place take the needs of all of your employees into consideration.
Discuss expectations. As where you work becomes less important, when you work will take center stage. As part of your hybrid work plan, come up with a list of communication norms that will support productivity and prevent burnout.
When you’re working from home, it’s too easy to just … keep working, all the time. In 2020, Microsoft found that the number of messages its employees sent after standard work hours doubled, and that people who did not work much on Saturday and Sunday pre-COVID-19 saw their weekend work triple. It’s no wonder that 71% of knowledge workers have experienced burnout over the past year.
Example norms might include the following:
- All meetings will have a video link to ensure that remote team members can join.
- For large all-hands meetings where some people will be in the office and some remote, everyone will still call in individually from their computers so those who are remote don’t feel left out.
- Everyone, whether they’re in the office or not, will be expected to be online (within reason) during a subset of normal work hours (for example, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. PST) to have some overlap with all coworkers.
- Everyone will share what they are working on for the week in a group email or Slack thread.
- Leaders will call in to meetings from home at least one day a week to normalize remote work.
Involve your people. A fresh start is a chance to reimagine what the workplace looks like, so make this planning process a creative endeavor. Try splitting employees into small focus groups to generate ideas for how to make the most of your office space and eventual in-person time. Bringing your people into the conversation can help surface better ways of working, break down silos that have formed over the past year, and make everyone more excited about the possibilities of getting together in an office again.
Highlight what your teams will gain with in-person time. In a survey conducted in late 2020, PwC found that over half of employees prefer working from home three days a week or more. Chances are high that not all of your people will be excited to come back to the office, especially if you’re asking them to come in more than a couple of days a week.
Instead of demanding that your teams get ready to be back in the workplace, focus on highlighting the benefits of getting together in person. If there were specific pre-COVID-19 culture events or celebrations that people enjoyed, share a plan for how you’ll restart them when everyone is together again. It’s likely that your people have also experienced some frustrations around digital communication or felt isolated at times. Remind them that getting together in person addresses both of those issues. According to PwC’s survey results, almost 90% of employees said that team collaboration and building relationships were much easier in person.
Present the change as an experiment. Humans resist change. Even though many people are looking forward to returning to the office, there will still be anxiety around the change — especially given that the details of the transition won’t be perfect at first. To ease people’s anxiety, frame the return to offices as an iterative process: Tell them that your organization will try Version 1 of a hybrid work setup at first and then iterate based on employee feedback. This will help people feel that it doesn’t have to be perfect in the beginning.
Though the return to offices might still be far off for your organization, it’s likely that most of your people are starting to think about it. By taking the steps above now, you can help employees feel more certain about the future, excited to reconnect with their colleagues, and supported by their leadership team.