Office workers used to, well, work in offices. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Since it was first declared, entire organizations — from the chief executive officers steering the ships to the administrative assistants below decks — were upended, flinging everyone from the company mothership into their own personal lifeboats.

As employers and employees face down the third year of the crisis, engaging workers as they return to offices or hybrid work arrangements in 2022 and beyond will require empathy and flexibility, say experts.

Read: 19% of remote workers would mull quitting if forced to return to office: survey

“Employees are on a rollercoaster, right? . . . The night before I returned to the office it was like the night before the first day of school, but there were many who were not feeling like it was the first day of school,” says Susannah Crabtree, partner and career business leader at Mercer Canada.

To build trust and confidence, she advises employers to consistently communicate the dos and don’ts related to public health measures so employees feel physically safe returning to the office. Staff may take longer to emotionally warm up to the idea, she notes. “I think that employees are going to need a little bit more flexibility, especially at first, so thinking about how to do a gradual return and taking a really empathetic approach will really serve employers well.”

By the numbers

2+ years — The WHO officially declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, more than two years ago.

Jan. 10, 2022 — While Google announced all staff would return to the office in early 2022, the technology giant was forced to indefinitely delay its plans due to the Omicron-driven wave in late 2021.

55% — The percentage of remote workers who said they’d consider leaving their job if they were asked back to the office before they felt safe, according to a January 2022 survey by Morning Consult.

83% — The percentage of Canadian benefits plan members who had at least one concern about returning to the workplace, according to the 2021 Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey.

While some white-collar employees have been working exclusively from home for 24 months (and counting), many employers have switched between in-person and remote working several times over the past two years. To engage staff in the process, organizations should be frequently communicating their short- and long-term visions for returning to the office, says Crabtree, noting that communicating early and often helps build compassion among workers. “Employees understand that employers are navigating through a very uncertain situation, too.”

Read: Employers grappling with unvaccinated employees upon return to office

Despite communicating plans throughout the crisis, some of Ontario Power Generation’s employees have been resistant to returning to the office during these uncertain times, says Tanya Hickey, the power generator’s senior manager of health and safety strategies.

While some of OPG’s employees are deemed essential workers and have been working onsite throughout the crisis, its white-collar employees were initially sent home to work remotely in early March 2020 and then returned to in-person work in June 2020. About six months later, the organization once again sent white-collar workers home when Ontario went into another lockdown.

By fall 2021, things were looking up — vaccines were widely available in Canada and OPG’s office employees were back in the workplace. Then the highly-transmissible Omicron variant sent staff back to fully remote work once again. It now anticipates bringing white-collar employees back to the office for a third time this spring.

Read: 80% of employees don’t want to return to office daily post-pandemic: survey

Many employers across North America — including Google, Lyft Inc. and Scotiabank — planned return-to-office dates only to delay plans multiple times. By late 2021, some organizations announced they’ll let staff chose whether to come to the office at all in 2022.

While other employers’ plans can be informative, Crabtree says organizations shouldn’t simply follow the crowd. She advises employers to seek direct feedback from employees via pulse surveys, town halls and one-on-one meetings to get a sense of what staff want and need to successfully come back together under one roof after spending so much time apart.

For OPG, collaboration is a main driver for engaging employees. “We work better in person, we work better in teams,” says Hickey. “And it’s mental health, as well. If you talk to people they might say they liked working from home because they saved gas money and they saved two hours of commuting and so forth, but it’ll be interesting. . . . The social isolation is going to have long-term effects whether people realize it or not. . . . Being around people makes a big difference.”

While that may be true, France Dufresne, division leader of talent and rewards for WTW (formerly Willis Towers Watson), warns that employee expectations around working in the office have changed and employers may need to change their expectations, too.

Read: U.S. remote workers split on whether they’re ready to return to office: survey

“It’s about being flexible about when and where and how work is delivered,” says Dufresne, noting many employees have been emotionally detached — in addition to physically detached — from their organizations during the crisis. Employers have the right to dictate where work is done, she adds, however, if they force employees to return to the office, it could have the opposite intention of engaging employees — it could be the catalyst for some talent to jump ship.

Offering a hybrid work model has emerged as a key way to engage employees in the return-to-office process, says Dufresne. And many employers, including OPG, have landed on providing white-collar employees with the choice of combining in-office and at-home work for the foreseeable future.

Being open to new work models and adjusting along the way is key as employers and employees face yet another uncertain year.

“The future looks very different,” says Crabtree.” “Employers should be thinking about the long term and sharing that with their teams. The communication should be clear and if employees understand what the long-term goal is and understand along the way [employers] might have to veer off course because of factors that are beyond their control, they’ll have stronger allegiance and be empathetic.”

Melissa Dunne is the managing editor of Benefits Canada.