HR Headaches: Mentally Preparing Employees to Return to Workplaces

Here’s how to address employees’ top concerns when it comes to returning to offices post-COVID-19.

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Reduce return-to-work stress and anxiety for your staff with these tips

As we shift to a post-COVID world, businesses are opening up and asking workers to return to on-site duty. For organizations, the transition brings a sigh of relief – things are getting back to normal. For workers, the transition may bring stress and anxiety. Getting over that hill will require a bit of pre-planning and a lot of understanding.

A survey by Limeade found that over 4,500 full-time employees currently working remotely, none were completely free of worry about returning to the workplace. The survey, held late January to early February 2021, found:

  • 77% were concerned about catching COVID-19
  • 71% were concerned about having less flexibility
  • 68% were worried about the commute
  • 54% were concerned about having to wear a mask
  • 22% were concerned about childcare, and
  • 7% had other concerns not listed

The message is clear: we want to get back to normal, but we’re uneasy about getting there. Addressing the top worries employees have about returning to the office environment can help bridge the gap and make the transition smoother and freer of anxiety.

Fear of catching COVID

Kudos to employees who weathered the pandemic without catching COVID-19. Whether by luck or great care, they were able to make it through unscathed. The prospect of returning to a busy office or workplace may be ramping up anxiety about end-of-pandemic exposure. Companies can help ease their fears with policies and protocols that:

  • Keep the workplace hygienic
  • Keep workers distanced, and
  • Minimize interactions (like weekly meetings) to those that are strictly necessary

Make sure to over-communicate all the mitigation efforts you’re making to the physical space before employees return to the office to help ease their fears. Send out emails, post signage about hand and surface washing, and remove common utensils and servingware.

For their mental wellbeing, the watchword will be patience. Some employees will be confident in their vaccine status and willing to jump back in with both feet. Others may choose not to vaccinate and be fearful; even the vaccinated may be hesitant. Remember, there’s no road map for this scenario. You’ll have to work with employees to get everyone as comfortable as possible in their own timeline – not yours.

Remember, there’s no road map for this scenario. You’ll have to work with employees to get everyone as comfortable as possible in their own timeline – not yours.

Employees with higher risk factors may be more concerned. Transitioning them more slowly may help ameliorate their fears, possibly starting out part-time until they feel more comfortable. Even those at low risk for significant outcomes may be anxious: address their concerns as well. The key to getting to full transition will be:

  • Listening to employees
  • Acting on their concerns and suggestions as much as possible; and
  • Giving them the time and space they need to feel at ease in the workplace

Less flexibility 

Getting the “remote work toothpaste” back in the tube was a concern for business leaders before the first employee dialed into an online meeting. Once workers found they could handle their job from the comfort of working from home, it was inevitably going to be a hard sell to get them to give it up.

The question for business may be — do they/you really have to give it up? Can you find a common ground between 100% remote and 100% on-site? The work/life balance flexibility offered will be difficult for many employees to surrender willingly. If you can adopt post-pandemic flexibility, it may work in your favor.

For some, the ability to work without interruption meant less distractions and more productivity. Is having them return to the office a worthwhile tradeoff? What do you gain — in terms of their physical presence — and what do you lose in terms of performance?

It’s hard to overestimate the value of working all day without wearing shoes. For these workers, the transition back to business clothing (even business casual) will be difficult. You might expect a first few weeks of disheveled teams. To ease the stress, it might be a good idea to make it fun. Have pajama days or slipper days (if you’re not meeting with clients) as your teams transition. If you can make it fun to try to return to work attire, you may ease the stress a bit.

Bloomberg reports a potential “Great Resignation” that threatens to cripple business as they bring employees back to on-site work. A Texas A&M associate professor posits employees who return to companies that are inflexible when it comes to flexible work arrangements may see a mass exodus from their ranks.

With more available jobs than applicants to fill them, businesses may want to work with current employees and potential new hires to offer as much flexibility as possible. This can ease concerns, make it easier to retain and recruit, and help boost work/life balance.

Back to the grind

For some workers, the best part of working remotely was avoiding rush hour traffic. The prospect of getting back on a train or bus, or sitting in the car in parking-lot highway conditions brings their anxiety level to 11. They may be concerned about the proximity of others on public transportation or the challenge of just getting back to non-road rage mode.

A possible way to ease some of these concerns may be to allow workers flexibility in start/end times to avoid the morning and evening madness. If you’ve ever ridden a city bus or train you understand that a half hour earlier or later could mean the difference between being seated and being crushed.

Even the worst rush hour commutes ease up at some point during the day. Could shift accommodations make a difference? It’s worth asking your employees if they think it could help. You’ll find some staffers will want to start earlier and leave earlier, helping cover the earliest morning shift, while others will be happy to start and end later. Poll employees on whether a bit of shift shifting could be helpful and the time slots they think work best for them. You may be surprised to find you’ll end up with full coverage on the floor and a happier team overall.

Mask optional?

Employees may be concerned about having to wear a mask, or concerned their coworkers won’t be wearing one. In some industries and roles, there may be no choice but to mask up for work. For others, anxiety about going maskless, even among those who are vaccinated is real. Northwestern University professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Jacqueline Gollan suggests, “baby steps to normalcy will help in overcoming anxiety.”

Set guidelines that the company supports concerns and comfort levels with no stigma and no questions asked.

Most people have been wearing their mask for over a year: it may be a challenging to take it off comfortably and without concern. Creating an environment that allows everyone to ultimately get back to showing their entire face will take patience. Make sure staffers know they’ll be allowed to keep on their mask or take it off at their own pace: set guidelines that the company supports concerns and comfort levels with no stigma and no questions asked.

For those worried others are not masked, you’ll need to balance the comfort level of staffers against their peers. Concerned, masked workers may need to be reassigned further away from their unmasked colleagues until they’re ready to reintegrate. You may wish to allow for more separation at meetings and in confined spaces. Set a policy that underscores you’ll allow employees to get to maskless status at their own pace to ease concern.

Give it time

The key for business will be patience. A Pew Research study found a majority of Americans believe it will take at least one year for business and public activities to operate at pre-COVID levels. Listen to their concerns and be ready to give staff members and customers ample time to get back to work comfortably and without anxiety.

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