We’re only days away from another significant marker in the roadmap out of lockdown, and many of us will be starting to consider returning to the office. Having worked from home for the past year, so many people across the country will have adapted to life in the home office, and so planning that fateful return to work could be a little bit stressful.
After months spent inside the comfort of our homes, with only our families around us, suddenly being placed in a bustling office for eight hours straight could be a little overwhelming – not to mention mentally taxing after the stress of this long, intense lockdown period. With new commutes to consider, a simultaneous loneliness and social overwhelm, new working routines to pick up on and social distancing measures to maintain, it can feel like starting a brand new job again for the very first time.
Socially, financially and physically, the return to work can be a daunting prospect, so it’s important to consider the ways in which you can help your employees to feel more comfortable coming back to the office.
Accept that not everyone will want to come back
You can have the shiniest computer screens, the hottest ping pong table, the brightest neon sign and the freshest vegan doughnuts, but to some people, your office is their ideal of hell right now. Putting it bluntly, some of your employees will not want to be there. The British workforce has spent a lot of time at home in the past year, and they’ve grown comfortable and safe there – with everything they need around them, their families in the next room and their commutes reduced to one flight of stairs.
It’s important to acknowledge that not everyone is desperate to return to their desks and that some might be groaning in their houses at the thought of coming back. Pretending like everyone is thrilled to be back in their offices won’t benefit anyone, and could end making up your employees feel more out-of-sync and upset for letting you down.
Take the time to speak to your employees honestly and openly about their individual feels about returning to the offices. Some might not feel safe returning yet, some might not want to come back at all, and some might need a little more time to adjust and want to try it out before committing to a full week. It’s time to listen to what they want, and what will make them the most productive and happy, rather than trying to force them back into the office.
Expect an adjustment period
For so many people, returning to the office is the first experience of physical sociallising they will have had in many many months. Making that change from chatting over Zoom calls to interacting in person can be an emotional transition that some might find overwhelming, exciting, strange or distracting. It’s reasonable to expect a little adjustment period at first when people start to trickle back into the office, for catching up, forming new routines, understanding the new guidelines and finding their feet back at work again.
It’s unrealistic to assume that work will just begin again as normal on those first few weeks back in the office, with so many internal and external distractions affecting your employees. Parents may be missing their children, or their pets, some may be experiencing anxiety at being out of the house again, some may be worrying about a loved one still at home, or some may be too relieved at normality to focus wholely on work again. Whilst it’s important to remind them that they are here to work, empathy and understanding will go a long way to paving an easier road back to the offices.
Find ways to make the return fun!
There’s nothing wrong with indulging your employees with a little bit of fun upon their return to the office. Find ways to offer your team treats, games, incentives and gifts to thank them for coming back to the office – without making those who have chosen not to return feel bad in the process. The first day back can be a daunting one, so order in some coffee or free lunch from their favourite takeaway, and let them play their favourite Spotify playlist on the speakers for the afternoon.
There’s no reason not to try and bring a little fun into what can be an anxiety-inducing and overwhelming process for many, and you can use your creativity to help plan some great activities and treats for your team to cheer them up.
Be open and receptive to emotions
There’s no guarantee that an employee’s return to their offices will be permanent. Some may come back and find it too overwhelming or struggle with the change, and it’s important to establish an open-door policy for employees to come and talk to you about their concerns. Be receptive to their thoughts and anxieties, and listen to what they have to say, before asking them what they would ideally like to do moving forward.
Don’t try and force an employee to stay in a situation in which they feel unsafe, and try to be as flexible as possible where you can. If an employee wants to work half-days at home, let them. If they want to do three days at work in the office, let them. Their mental health is more important than their physical workplace and it’s vital for employees to feel supported in their choices.
Implement wellness breaks and routines
The 2021 return to the office is a great opportunity to change how you run your workspace. You can take this chance to start implementing new and improved ways of working, that truly put your employees first. Allow your team to take mental health breaks if necessary, encourage them to move around at their desks, introduce ergonomic standing desks and daily walks to help improve posture and physical health. Bring in fresh fruit and clean water, offer spaces for relaxation and meditation, give them the space to call loved ones still at home if they need to or to check up on family members who may be struggling.
Ask your team what changes they would like to see in your offices too. Would they rather have space for unwinding and recreation or a workout area? Would they prefer to leave the office earlier on a Monday or a Friday? Would some company-sponsored yoga sessions be helpful to your team or some in-office mindfulness exercises?
Making a conscious effort to include your team in wellness-based planning is a great way to indicate to them that you really are putting them first. You want to impress upon them that their needs come first and that you’re doing everything you can to make their return to the office as peaceful, easy and well-thought-out as possible.
Take the time to sit down and really plan out your approach to the return. Try to see it from your employees perspective and give it some thought before making any firm decisions. Empathy can go a long way in stressful times and knowing that their boss is out there supporting them and thinking of their needs is huge for helping employees feel comfortable coming back to the office.
Do you have any other tips for helping workplaces get ready for the return to work?
Thanks for reading.