How to Prepare Your Employees for a Post-COVID Return to the Workplace
Returning to work post-pandemic can affect your staff’s physical and mental wellbeing. Here’s how to support your employees as they transition back to in-person working.
If you’re getting ready to go back to the office, you’re not alone. A recent Workest by Zenefits study of 1,000 small business owners and employees found that 67% are preparing a return to work. While social distancing measures and enhanced ventilation are non-negotiables, don’t overlook plans to support employees as they become reacquainted with in-person working.
We talked to small business owners, HR professionals, and operations managers to see how they’re building mental health support and reorientation into their plans for reopening the workplace.
Discussing policies in person gives employees a chance to chime in, ask questions, or share concerns.
Returning to in-person working will be an adjustment for all, and employees will be looking to their business owners, leadership teams, and HR professionals to guide the transition. Host a reorientation for employees to formalize the re-entry to the workplace. Doing so does a few things.
- Signals to employees that you don’t expect “business as usual” to resume. Nothing is “as usual” in the pandemic and post-pandemic world, and acknowledging that our workplaces and our lives have changed is an important step in moving forward.
- Offers a moment to bring employees up to speed. Talk about staggered start times, hybrid work options, kitchen safety during COVID, and the importance of wearing facial cloth coverings, among your other policy changes. Discussing policies in person gives employees a chance to chime in, ask questions, or share concerns.
- Gives HR a chance to talk about mental health resources. During reorientation, emphasize employee wellbeing and provide clear instruction on how employees can use their benefits to access mental health resources.
Reorientation is also a good time to remind your workforce to focus on respect and empathy as employees come back to work. Highly politicized in the U.S., the pandemic only deepened the existing divisions we were experiencing, and individuals may feel frustrated with personal opinions on wearing masks or getting vaccinated. Remind employees not to infer malintent and rather assume your colleagues and coworkers have the best of intentions. Empathy goes a long way.
Read more: 64% of Unvaccinated Employees Don’t Intend on Getting a Shot, Plus Other Return to Work Insights from SMBs
At Eyedo, a SaaS field operations technology company, founder and CEO Ronen Yemini said they’ll be focusing their first week or two on return-orientation.
Return-orientation will be run by a task force that includes HR professionals, managers, team leads, and Yemini himself. “We’re aiming to make this team as diverse in terms of staff as possible (i.e., including tech team leads as well as sales managers) so that the needs of as much of our staff as possible are met,” Yemini said. He also noted that return-orientation will be done with each team or department separately, and that they’ll have a lighter assigned workload than usual. “[The lesser workload is] in order to give everyone leeway to get accustomed to the office once more,” Yemini said.
Start small with meetings
Meetings, never beloved by all, may be newly dreaded in the return to work. With 40% of respondents to a recent Workest by Zenefits survey noting their companies plan to bring employees back all at once with no capacity limit, it’s natural employees may have fears about maintaining social distancing. For others who have spent much of the pandemic alone or isolated, the prospect of a social interaction can be anxiety inducing. In any case, hosting an all-hands meeting at 10:00 am on the first day back is unlikely to win you any supporters.
At Force by Mojo, a fleet-tracking technology company, Director of Operations Daviat Dholakia said they’ll be starting small.
“I know some companies are planning an “all hands on deck” event, but we don’t think that’s the best way to bring people together after a year apart.” He said they’ll be hosting smaller team meetings that HR will help organize instead. The meetings will focus on introducing new hires and reviewing company policies, as well as serve as a space to share freely. “[the meetings] will also be an opportunity for us to have an open discussion about anxiety and concerns that people may not feel comfortable engaging in on a larger level. We’re hoping this will ease employees into a more comfortable frame of mind,” Dholakia said.
At Supportiv, an online peer-to-peer, mental health support resource, CEO and founder Helena Plater-Zyberk and her team debuted “non-meetings” during the pandemic. Non-meetings were designed as a time for employees to bond over anything but work, and Plater-Zyberk said they’ll continue even after the team has returned to the office.“We laugh about the foibles of our daily lives and engage in watercooler talk about current events,” Plater-Zyberk said.
Supportiv’s non-meetings came about to help new employees hired over the course of the pandemic connect with the team. “They’d only ever worked remotely and hadn’t had the opportunity for typical bonding with the rest of the team,” Plater-Zyberk said.
“Our company culture encourages humor, little sparks of silliness and joy, and bringing your whole self to work as integrated recuperation techniques. We wanted to ensure that those experiences were not lost, so we created a forum where it’s all on the table, and no one needs to worry that they are redirecting anyone’s focus if they share non-work conversation fodder,” Plater-Zyberk said.
Try an ice breaker
The past year of remote work included big triumphs over adversity, but probably some harmless-yet-hilarious guffaws as well. Consider breaking the ice in company gatherings by having everyone share a work-related memory from the previous year, bonus points for recalling surprise Zoom-appearances by pets, kids, and roomies.
“Commemorating the memories we’ve had as a team during the remote-working era is a good way to cut down on any awkwardness.”
Isabella Zhou, marketing lead at Trustana, an online international trading company, said reminiscing is a good way to help ease the reintroduction.
“Commemorating the memories we’ve had as a team during the remote-working era is a good way to cut down on any awkwardness,” she said. “Reminiscing in our hardships and celebrating our successes in person — finally! — is something we all deserve.”
Support employees who feel anxious
Re-entry anxiety is a real thing. Some individuals may fear the increased risk for getting sick that accompanies being around a larger group of people, while for others, social interaction after a year of limited contact may be the culprit. In any case, business owners and HR professionals should have plans in place to support employees. This starts with open lines of communication and regular check-ins, before, during, and after employees have returned to work.
Touch base with employees, one-on-one, before returning to work with a key focus on mental health, safety concerns, and employee wellbeing. Let employees know in advance of the one-on-one that you’d like to have an open discussion on the return to work and how they’re feeling.
“You should encourage them to share any concerns they have and address any worries about their physical and mental wellbeing,” said Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health, a UK-based healthcare charity.
And express a willingness to receive feedback so employees know their concerns will be heard and addressed. Despite your most careful planning, there may be disguised dangers or causes for anxiety that you only realize once employees return. Perhaps you end up with a blockage at the entrance as employees diligently sanitize their hands, or maybe vaccinated employees aren’t wearing their masks indoors.
In any way, make it clear to employees that you welcome feedback so you can keep the workplace safe and help employees feel comfortable. You could create an anonymous, online feedback box system through a tool like Vevox or Suggestion Ox, as well as reiterate requests for feedback in email communications, during meetings, and ask managers to do so in 1:1s.
“You should encourage them to share any concerns they have and address any worries about their physical and mental wellbeing.”
Charles McMillian, business owner and founder of entrepreneur resource Stand with Mainstreet recommended daily check-ins with employees for the first week as they return to work. “This facilitates real conversations with colleagues and helps you identify any warning signs of social distress ahead of time,” McMillan said.
For employees you notice may be struggling, take extra time to discuss your company’s employee assistance program (EAP). Reassure the employee that these resources are available for their benefit, and they should take advantage of these services without the fear of stigma.
Even if the first week or two passes without incident, you’ll want to ensure you’re synced up with employee sentiment. Continue conversations about the transition — what’s going well, where you can improve, and how you can make employees feel more comfortable — in 1:1s and team meetings.
Allison Lobel, Psy.D, psychologist at Chicago-based Wellington Counseling Group recommended businesses create a safe and anonymous system of communication for employees to provide feedback to management about return-to-work concerns. “This emotional space will go far to give employees a much-needed sense of comfort that employers care and want to respond in supportive ways,” she said.
Provide employees emotional support and resources
This past year has illustrated to us the necessity of wellbeing and mental health care above all else. As you prepare to bring your employees back to the office, go beyond hand sanitizer stations and emergency office closure policies. Instead, be sure to focus on providing employees the emotional support and resources they need to re-transition back to the office.