Returning to The Office: How to Support Employees And Ease ‘Re-entry’ Anxiety

With Covid-19 vaccinations being offered around the globe, and the promise of life returning to a new normal, many employees are left wondering when they will be called to return to the office. While opinions vary about what the future of work looks like, a survey commissioned by Slack of 9,032 workers in the US, UK, France, Germany, Japan and Australia found that 72% of workers would prefer a Hybrid work style- meaning they would work both from the office and at home.

Despite the fact that employees want to return to office work in some capacity, a quick Google search reveals that employees have many concerns about moving from remote work scenarios back to office environments. There is also endless contradictory information regarding what the new work environment will look like for many people, which understandably is causing concern for employees and employers alike.

The anxiety that employees feel is typically related to two key factors. First, they feel uncertainty about how a return to the office will feel after working remotely for over a year. Secondly, they worry about the destabilizing impact it may have on the routines they have developed over the last year. While there is no single approach to solving these issues, there are steps that leaders and managers can take to reduce the anxious feelings their teams will have when returning to the office.

Step One: Recognise the Impact of Routine Change

Breaking the routines that your employees have created at home could provoke anxiety as they may have become dependent on certain patterns that have helped them get through each day. In fact, the study commissioned by Slack suggests that 51.6% of workers saw an improvement in work/life balance after transitioning to remote work. Most likely, this is because simple activities like taking the kids to school, undertaking housework whilst working, or exercising in place of a long commute have become commonplace this year.

While many of these routines are impossible to continue when working from an office, there has been a greater emphasis on employee health, wellbeing and work-life balance over the last twelve months which should make these routines easier than ever to keep.

Some teams have designated days for meetings, set certain times for emailing, or even set certain days for collaboration and for individual work. When we return to the office, it’s important to keep these routines in place as much as possible. This structure gives your teams time to get their work done and can help ease the anxiety that some people may be feeling about suddenly working around other people again all day can bring.

Whatever other support systems your company has implemented during Covid that were designed to enhance productivity, should be retained in the office. These protocols may need to be adjusted slightly but sticking to a routine can help ease the change in work environments.

Step Two: Focus on Reducing Risk

Fixating on the negatives for too long can create anxiety – this is a long-term evolutionary process that was used by our minds to keep us safe and alive. Though it wasn’t really necessary day-to-day pre-pandemic, it has become the norm over the last year, as our own physical health and that of our loved ones is jeopardized.

Despite vaccinations now being widely available in most developed and developing countries, the threat of COVID-19 will still be present after returning to the office, creating anxiety. A survey by Honeywell of 2000 workers in the UK, US, Germany, and the Middle East suggests that 59% of workers are worried about co-workers not following COVID-19 health and safety rules; that same study suggests that 56% of employees are worried about airborne transmission within offices.

These statistics are not surprising. It is natural for employees to be concerned about their health – especially in offices that may be crammed, poorly ventilated or not have the safety procedures that have become the norm in other locations.

As a workplace, what steps can you take to make employees feel more at ease?

  • Focus on the flow of people and office layout to ensure social distancing. This may mean taking a phased approach to returning to the office or alternating work schedules to ensure everyone can maintain distance, stay healthy and feel comfortable. Consider allowing versatile work structures: for example, allowing some employees to stay remote, some to use flex work locations and others to be in-office only.
  • Implement contactless systems for the office like e-signatures, contactless technology and motion-detected sanitizer dispensers. Also, remain diligent about symptom monitoring and increasing access to cleaning supplies and procedures. My advice is to follow the guidelines set out by authorities, take extra measures where necessary, and ensure you are communicating clearly, often and early.

Step Three: Provide Mental Health Supports

This step goes far beyond just the initial return; make sure that any mental health support you introduce is implemented long-term to promote the safety and wellbeing of everyone. Prior to the pandemic, an HSE study from 2019 found that 44% of work-related illness was related to anxiety or depression. This amount has only increased, with a 2021 study by the Office of National Statistics in the US suggesting that the number of adults suffering from depression in 2021 has doubled.
Regardless of your job title, most people are experiencing mental health concerns or some level of anxiety related to returning to the office. Making mental health support easily accessible and focusing on creating an open environment to discuss anxiety is essential.

For all employees, there are several ways to overcome anxiety. These include:

  • Requesting some form of transition plan, rather than jumping headfirst into full-time work back into the office.
  • Being open to having conversations about how you are feeling – it is more than likely others are also in the same box. Communicate often with those around you to stay on top of what’s happening.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself – remember that this is the first time we are facing such challenges.
  • Remember that the anticipation is sometimes worse than the reality. Focusing on what you can control rather than just worrying about things out of your control is an important step.

Step Four: Communicate With Kindness

Express what is happening and allow open conversation with your teams.

If you are the leader in an organisation, you too will face struggles with the transition. Communicate how you feel too, and ensure you are creating an environment based on mutual respect, communication and empathy.

Whilst the return to the office will be a challenging time, it also brings many opportunities for collaboration, team building, socialisation and productivity that we have been missing out on. Focusing on communication, empathy and respect will go a long way when easing the transition to a new normal.

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    Leila Rezaiguia
    Leila Rezaiguia