It’s been a long time since professionals have worked together in a shared space, and returning to that environment could be stressful. Here’s how to help employees through this transition.
A return to the office is becoming more and more realistic for organizations. But coming back will probably lead to some form of reentry anxiety among employees.
Whether it’s health and safety concerns, social anxiety after a year of working alone, or worries about reacclimating to a shared workspace, organizations and their leaders need to be ready to address these stressors so that employees can transition smoothly. And the process starts with understanding your staff.
“Everyone experiences stress in different ways,” says Lisa Frydenlund, HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management. “Managers are going to have to be more aware of performance changes, be available for conversation, and acknowledge that we’re all going through this.”
Use these tips from Frydenlund to find the root of your employees’ reentry anxiety and help them overcome it.
Reach Out to Employees
As you make plans to return to the office, connect with employees to get a sense of how they feel about heading back. You can conduct a survey asking how comfortable they are with returning to the office, how many days of the week they want to be there, how they feel about safety measures you plan to implement, and whether they have barriers to returning, such as child care responsibilities.
Managers should also make it clear that they’re available to talk further about concerns employees might have. An open line of communication will help your organization determine an ideal reopening strategy. Then you can use these learnings to help inform your return strategy, showing employees that they’re being heard.
“Allowing for avenues of conversation and engagement is going to be really helpful,” Frydenlund says. “To ask is really important, instead of assuming or not even thinking twice and saying, ‘OK, you need to get back [to the office] right now.’”
That said, Frydenlund says managers should not diagnose or label employees who are experiencing anxiety or pry too far into their personal lives. Instead, direct them to relevant resources and employee assistance programs, where mental health professionals can work with them.
Bolster Your Employee Assistance Program
Traditionally, employee assistance programs have been used to help employees deal with personal and social problems such as substance abuse and marital issues. The purpose of EAPs has expanded over time to include counseling and other mental health services.
Now is the time to ensure your program has these resources available. An EAP gives employees at all levels a place to go when they’re struggling.
“Managers and leaders are dealing with the same stuff, so it’s really going to take a village,” Frydenlund says. “What if it’s a manager who’s stressing out?”
EAPs are commonly underused, with one of the biggest reasons being poor company communication. In your communications to employees about returning to the office, promote your EAP as a place to go if they’re feeling stressed about the transition.
Frydenlund also says to take advantage of any mental health services that are included in your primary care offerings. For example, some Blue Cross Blue Shield companies have recently broadened access to mental healthcare benefits.
Continue to Follow Health and Safety Guidelines
Show employees you’re still keeping their safety a top priority by following industry-specific recommendations and the latest guidelines from your state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the pandemic’s grip on daily life is loosening, officials still recommend certain measures for people who aren’t fully vaccinated and for situations such as traveling using public transportation.
Emphasize Transparency and Frequent Communication
Given the potential stress around coming back to the office, organizations should keep employees informed of their plans as much as possible. Be clear about what safety guidelines you’re following, lead them to resources where they can learn more, and explain why you’re reopening the office.
“Transparency is key in helping people feel safe and well taken care of,” Frydenlund says. “They may not agree with the information that’s being shared, but they have an understanding of why.”
You could also offer training or information sessions on safety measures, proper hygiene practices, and what office life will be like when they return.
Help employees ease back into things by allowing hybrid work, where they can still work remotely for a few days a week. Also, think about what kind of work necessitates face-to-face interaction and what can be done at home. Denying employees the option to work remotely in some capacity could cause resistance.
“Just saying no anymore is going to be really difficult,” Frydenlund says. “I’m seeing stories where people are saying, ‘If I don’t have the option, I’m out.’”