Over a year ago the world changed almost overnight. With very little warning or planning, companies across the globe did the impossible and leap into a remote environment to protect their workers from a worldwide pandemic. Now with vaccine rates rising every day and case numbers shrinking, companies are once again faced with a decision. Do they keep working remotely or is it time for employees to return to work? If your office is safe enough to bring workers back, you still need to be prepared for resistance. Employees may not feel like working in-person is safe yet or they may like their remote work model better. To help your teams with this transition, let’s explore some ways you can smooth the process of bringing employees back to the office.
6 strategies to support employees
Tensions might be high right now when it comes to recalling employees. This is a matter of physical safety and when employees find their backs to the wall, some are choosing to jump jobs rather than return to their office. To help your workers navigate this anxiety consider:
What’s the plan?: Before you can bring anyone back, you need a clear plan of what’s that’s going to look like. Think about the work environment and what might need to change before workers return. Are desks or workstations too tight together? Is there enough room for people to move around without needing close contact? You’ll also need to figure out your safety protocols. Will masks be mandatory inside? How many sanitizing stations will you need set up? Do you need to invest in deeper cleaning? You might even think about your sick leave policy and whether it needs an update. Your employees will ask you all of this when you call them back so plan in advance and know how you’ll communicate the new rules to your team.
Embrace flexibility: A lot may have changed over the past year. Maybe employees had to move or perhaps babies were born or workers might have new eldercare commitments. The point is, you can’t expect everything to go back to the way it was before the pandemic now that employees have proven how well they can work when left to their own devices. When bringing people back, you want to make sure they still have some level of flexibility they can use. One way to do this is with hybrid teams, allowing workers who preferred remote work to do so a few days a week. Or you can offer flex hours, meaning you have set core hours workers need to be in the office and the rest of the time they can work from anywhere. You could also offer flexible shifts. Maybe working 9-5 isn’t right for your workers anymore and they need a 7-3 or 10-6 split instead. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking work needs to happen the way it always has before. We’ve all learned to adapt in this past year and providing flexibility can help your teams fall back into a regular routine.
Talk to your team: We always say communication is one of the most important elements of a successful team. Once your office has a plan in place of how to bring workers back, communicate that to your team. Make sure they feel informed and prepared and encourage them to voice any worries or concerns they may have. Odds are, if one employee is worried about something, they all likely are. Don’t try to dismiss those feelings or talk over them. Employees have a right to be fearful about a plan that could impact their physical health. It’s your job as a leader to address those fears and hold the team together. This is a great time to lead by example and discuss how you’re feeling about the plan and any concerns you might have. Hold an open conversation and if needed, you might even want to follow up with a sentiment survey just to make sure you’ve heard all the information. And don’t think one conversation will be enough. Check-in with your team regularly to see how they’re adapting and who might be struggling.
Provide resiliency training: All this change might be overwhelming for your team and you don’t want them burning out. As you prepare to return, or once you’re newly back in the office, you might want to consider providing some training to help employees refresh their skills about coping with change and adapting to new working realities. Resiliency training often centers around 4 areas, emotional, cognitive, physical, and spiritual resilience. Training in these areas can help improve employee’s confidence, lower anxiety, and decrease stress. Plus it gives employees tools and a shared language to talk about what their feeling and what support they might need.
Don’t forget about mental health: With so much focus being placed on physical health and safety, it can be easy to overlook mental health. With employees working remotely, you might not be aware of any personal mental health challenges that employees might have been dealing with throughout the pandemic. Returning to the office might expose those struggles or exacerbate a condition under control. Talk to your employees about mental health and show them you have a team culture that’s supportive, not punitive, if employees find themselves feeling a little rocky. If your company provides any mental wellness benefits now is a great time to give your team a reminder about what’s available. There are lots of free online resources you could share as well, such as mediation or mindfulness apps. You could also consider a health survey if your team is comfortable disclosing that information just so you have a better idea of what a particular team member might be dealing with.
Leverage team building: It might have been a while since your team was able to get together in the real world. Much like how you can’t expect employees to work exactly as they worked before the pandemic, you might also run into problems with teams having trouble falling back into old roles. In a remote world, and after a rough year, people may have changed. Teams might have grown disconnected and employees disengaged from each other. A great way to kick off an office return is with some team-building activities that can help recreate the bonds that used to be in place and get your team back on the same page. Assessments can be incredibly useful to leverage in this setting as they can help employees learn more about each other and the interpersonal dynamics at play as teams try to reform. Plus, if you’ve added any new hires through the pandemic this is a great strategy to help them learn more about their teammates and where they can best fit into the group.
Returning to work doesn’t have to be stressful
We’ve all just lived through a year literally unlike any other. As we try to make sense of where we are now and where we need to move it’s understandable that employees might be a little uncertain. As you plan your reopening, be sensitive to those fears and make space to address them. Employees want to know their companies are prioritizing their well-being and taking workplace safety seriously. Without those assurances, employers run the risk of employees simply opting to find a new job that can offer them better protection. So don’t rush back to the office just yet. Come up with a plan to support returning employees and communicate, communicate, communicate. Show your teams you’re in this together and that as a unit, you can adapt to anything.