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Employees are feeling anxious about the looming return to in-person work as the coronavirus appears to be receding. 82% of respondents to a recent Wall Street Journal survey said they felt apprehensive about going back. Likewise, one-third of the people who have already returned to in-person work report a negative impact on mental health, according to a McKinsey Survey.
The delta variant and rise in Covid-19 infections have undoubtedly made people's hesitations, and anxiety, worse. The pending vaccinations for children may lessen some risk, but in the short term may fuel more uncertainty for working parents.
Anxiety is a major roadblock to productivity, job satisfaction, and interpersonal relationships with coworkers. Employers should focus on creating a smooth, anxiety-free return to the office not just because it's the right thing to do but to avoid major disruptions to business operations.
And recognize that concern over the coronavirus is only one part of the reluctance to return to the workplace. As such, much of the discussion, and resistance, to returning to the workplace has little to do with the prevalence of the Covid-19 vaccine.
But many people do have genuine concerns about health, safety, and the overall work environment.
Below, we'll cover how employers can help alleviate anxiety by providing detailed communication about the return-to-work plan, remaining empathetic to employee concerns, fostering interpersonal connections, and keeping focused on the well-being of their employees.
1. Ask your employees how they’re feeling about returning to work
Workers are divided about returning to the office. Across the population, we know that many are stressed. Some are fearful and anxious. Many just don't see the point.
Do you know what your employees are feeling? If you don't find out, you won't be able to address it.
Announcing a mandate to return to the office without checking in with your employees is like shooting in the dark. That’s why it’s worth assessing how your team feels about returning to work with surveys and one-on-one conversations.
Image source: McKinsey
First, make it clear that there are no right or wrong answers. Employees may fear it's a trick question or that they'll look like they can't keep up if they prefer to continue working from home. You can’t build complete trust overnight, but reiterating to employees that their response will not be subject to judgment is a step in the right direction.
Anonymous surveys and/or one-on-one conversations are two ways to check in with employees. Here are the questions you need to ask to determine how employees are feeling and to surface concerns you can actively address:
- How are things at home and with your family?
- Do you feel it’s safe to return to the office? How do you envision handling close contact with others?
- What are you most worried about in returning to work in the office?
- Do you prefer to work full-time from home, from the office, or a combination of the two?
- What can we do to make your return less stressful?
- What do you miss about in-person work?
- Do you think your productivity will be hampered if you return to in-office work?
- Are you or is someone in your household immunocompromised?
- Do you have childcare/ caregiving arrangements?
2. Communicate with an action plan that addresses common concerns
68% of employees in a McKinsey survey feel their employees haven't fully communicated the company's vision for returning to work, and nearly 50% said this lack of communication is making them anxious. Employers have an opportunity to reduce this anxiety by clearly communicating the plan to return to the office, including addressing any specific concerns brought up by their team.
If a majority of employees fear getting sick, your plan should prioritize addressing that fear with office safety protocols, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Create a comprehensive action plan that addresses whether and how you'll address some of the most common concerns, including:
- Modify office spaces to help employees maintain physical distance and ensure proper ventilation
- Implement routine cleaning and disinfecting office spaces
- Implement a clear policy on wearing face masks, the types of masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Requirements for temperature checks before entering the facility
- Requirements to submit daily Covid screening reports
- Clarity on an office-wide vaccine mandate
- Accommodations for employees with medical conditions
- Contact tracing if there is a positive case of COVID-19
- Access to on-site healthcare providers
Creating this action plan isn't easy, so consider using a template like Woodruff Sawyer's to get started. Once you share the action plan document, offer a company-wide meeting to walk through the document. Also, make yourself available to address individual concerns. Remember: this is a significant, emotional change coming at the tail-end of one of the most challenging times in recent history. In other words: don't cut corners — this isn't the time.
3. Offer flexibility to choose a work schedule, if possible
Most employees prefer a flexible model of hybrid work, where they can choose how often they go into the office. And employees are ready to quit their jobs rather than give up the flexibility they enjoyed during the pandemic. Returning to in-person work shouldn’t cost you your employees — so give them agency to plan their schedules.
A recent Microsoft survey of 30,000 employees shows every employee is different and has individual needs and preferences. Some employees cite work-life balance and focus time as reasons for returning to work, while others view these as reasons to stay home. In addition, there is what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella calls the “hybrid work paradox” — employees want the flexibility to work remotely but also crave in-person collaboration.
Combine this paradox with limits on workplace capacity and on-site requirements for certain teams, and you’ve got a recipe for chaos. But there are ways to make scheduling easier.
- Cohort schedules — Divide teams into groups based on how much they collaborate with each other through the course of work. Have one group come in on Monday and Thursday one week and the other group on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Switch their schedules the following week.
- Staggered schedules — If employees typically work in shifts, divide them based on their entry and exit time to avoid overcrowding and maintain social distancing.
- Pilot programs — Piloting the return to office can ease the transition by letting employees experiment and find their comfort level.
- Individual schedules — This option allows employees to choose how often and when they want to come into the office. Use a scheduling tool like Officely, Capterra, or Resource Guru to make the process easy and efficient.
4. Facilitate interpersonal connections
Employers can reduce the anxiety of returning to work after Covid by emphasizing in-person interaction. And think about how you can create space for people to get past the superficial.
After all, connection is the one thing employees missed the most during the pandemic. There’s only so much Zoom happy hours and virtual escape rooms could do to combat social isolation and loneliness among employees.
After a year and a half of lagging internet connections, sharing screens, and the subsequent Zoom fatigue, face-to-face interaction could prove to be a workplace highlight. More importantly, if you don't design for in-person interaction, the people who were excited to come back to the office won't be for long.
But don't forget the people not on the room. The past year and a half has shown that we are capable of deep connection even from afar, if we allow time for it and make it a priority over time.
Employees are excited about feeling connected, but many are experiencing social anxiety. So, the reorientation will require more than running into coworkers in the hallway or chatting by the water cooler. Employers need tactics to facilitate deep, high-quality connections as social muscles that lay unused during the pandemic need to be retrained.
The task, then, is to help employees develop meaningful connections with their coworkers that may chip away at some of the anxiety. There are a number of ways to enable this in your work environment:
- Block time once or twice a month on the calendar, during normal working hours, for just your team to connect casually. Bring remote people in on video if you have to with larger screens in a conference room.
- Schedule back-to-work happy hours or other gatherings to help employees view the return to the office as a celebration.
- Organize group lunches (with social distancing measures in place) that spark conversation. For example, a potluck where each employee brings a favorite food item naturally leads to talking about different cuisines and preferences.
- Hold non-work meetings once or twice a month, where employees can discuss topics that have traditionally been viewed as “off-limits.” Employees form deeper connections when they learn about their coworkers’ families, challenges they may be facing, and things they are excited about.
- Provide more opportunities for collaboration through peer workshops and brainstorming huddles so employees can experience the benefit of being in the same room.
- Have an open-door policy so employees can feel comfortable talking to managers about problems and challenges they face as they figure out a new schedule.
5. Provide ongoing mental health support
A smooth return-to-work experience may hinge on the mental fitness of employees and how well they’re able to adapt to the new changes. Just like hitting the gym to maintain physical fitness, mental health needs upkeep too.
Employees may be irritable, confused, and scared as they deal with new routines and evolving circumstances. They may also be suffering from a form of Covid PTSD.
Research shows that 55% of employees are languishing at any given time. This means that everyday stressors hit them harder, and they’re unable to perform their best work. Coaching equips employees with the skills and mindsets they need to manage stress and overcome routine challenges.
Mental fitness is strengthened with clarity, purpose, and meaning at work and in life. Here’s how employers can use coaching to develop their mental muscles:
- One-on-one coaching: Individual coaching sessions help people grow and reach peak performance. Provide a personal coach to help employees gain clarity on their strengths and learn how to leverage them.
- Coaching circles: Facilitate group coaching sessions. These are six-week development experiences led by a coach. Employees build social connections and trust and learn through an exchange of ideas in the group.
- Mental fitness exercises: Create a scheduled time for employees to pause during the workday for mental health exercises like meditation, breathing, and writing in a journal.
Return to work is more than just getting employees through the door
Hybrid workplaces are quickly becoming the new norm. But don't get so focused on your workplace logistics that you lose track of the employee experience, culture, and the work itself.
You may be successful in bringing employees into the office, but the real measure of success will be in what you can do to make them want to stay — and thrive — in your organization.