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Heading Back To the Office?
Keep Employee Well-Being Front and Center

Employers are busy getting physical workspaces ready to welcome back employees after almost a year and a half of working remotely. Amidst all the preparation, don’t forget the emotional element—how your employees will feel re-entering the office after so much time spent at home. Here are a few things to consider to help safeguard employees’ well-being during this transition.

Stay flexible and set clear expectations.

For many organizations, the pandemic proved that remote work could be just as, if not more, productive than in-person work. Because of this, lots of employers have decided they’ll continue to allow employees to work from home at least some of the time—what people are calling a “hybrid approach.”

This is a welcome development for workers who have grown accustomed to the flexibility that working from home provides. For those with families, it may have made the school drop-off or pick-up schedule easier. Others enjoyed the flexibility to schedule personal appointments during the day and log on after hours. And many, many people loved getting back the time they used to spend commuting.

If you can continue to offer some flexibility when it comes to when and where people work, do so. It could even impact your retention strategy. A 2021 Gartner Hybrid Work Employee Survey found that forcing employees to go back to the onsite environment could result in employers losing up to 39% of their workforce.

The most important thing is to be clear about your expectations. For example, will you allow employees to set their own schedules, or mandate certain days as in-office and others as remote? Can teams develop their own policies, or will there be one consistent policy organization-wide? Are there certain meetings or events where even 100% remote workers will be required to attend in person?

Acknowledge the anxiety people may be feeling.

A study conducted by Total Brain found that two-thirds of American workers say they feel somewhat or extremely anxious about returning to work. An American Psychological Association survey noted that nearly half of Americans (49%) say they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends. There could be a whole host of reasons: health and safety concerns, nerves about interacting with coworkers again, a reluctance to let go of the flexibility of working from home, or new family or health challenges.

Another source of anxiety might be around bringing their authentic selves back to the office. The pandemic offered an opportunity for people to take stock of their lives and make meaningful changes—and there’s anxiety about bringing these new parts of themselves into a workplace where people knew them differently before.

Whatever the reason, it’s important to acknowledge this anxiety. Leaders and managers have a big role to play here. First, employees need to feel like they can be honest about their concerns without worrying they’ll be punished or criticized. We sometimes refer to this as psychological safety and it will be more critical than ever. Second, managers and leaders should make an effort to connect with employees by asking questions and letting staff openly talk about their experiences and what they’ve learned about themselves over the past year.

Think about re-entry as you would any large-scale change initiative.

When you think about it, we’ve already gone through one huge change—an abrupt shift to working remotely and social distancing. While we don’t love change, humans are capable of adjusting, and most people were eventually able to adapt to new ways of living and working. Thus, it stands to reason that shifting back to previous ways of living and working will also take time and patience. Employers can help by using tried-and-true change management techniques:

  • Listen—ask employees for feedback about returning to work to ensure that you’re taking their needs into consideration.
  • Set clear expectations—eliminate confusion by making it crystal clear what your expectations are about in-person vs. remote work.
  • Communicate frequently—even if you don’t know all the answers about returning to work, stay out front with communication so the void doesn’t get filled with misinformation.
  • Give people tools—whether it’s support for mental health, caregiving, or financial concerns, giving people the tools to manage other aspects of their lives can result in happier, more engaged employees.

Some employees may be permanently remote—find ways to include them!

Even when many employees have returned to the office, some employee groups might remain remote permanently. It’s crucial that they still feel part of the team, and that their input is just as valuable as someone who works in the office every day.

To use our own organization as an example, during the height of COVID-19, WebMD Health Services integrated with StayWell. We now have people working out of 37 states and Canada! Less than half of our workforce will even be able to return to a physical office, so we will never be office-dominated again. Here are a few ways we are planning to be inclusive with our remote staff:

  • In meetings, call on virtual employees to add their opinion to the mix. Or, begin Monday meetings by asking the team what they did last weekend.
  • Set up social breaks over lunch for those who want to chat about non-work-related things, or even facilitate remote gaming or trivia sessions.
  • Have a small event or a culture committee made up of both in-person and virtual employees to make sure everyone gets included.

Continue to offer mental health support.

If you’re like most employers, you took a hard look at the mental health benefits available to your employees during this stressful time. As we return to the office, these resources will continue to be essential:

  • Employee Assistance Programs that offer free counseling sessions for employees and their family members
  • Child or elder care assistance—a massive source of stress for employees
  • Access to well-being coaches
  • Fitness programs, whether virtual or onsite
  • Free mindfulness, meditation, and sleep apps
  • Stress management and resilience training programs
  • Tele-mental health visits and onsite counselors for those in the office
  • Training and tools for managers to become more empathetic, spot mental health concerns on their team, and direct people to the right resources

One last point—the pandemic has given us a unique opportunity to take stock of our organizational cultures and reevaluate what was and wasn’t working before. As you plan for a return to the office, if there are things you want to change, now is the time to do it. Our businesses—and our people—will thank us later!

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