As Canadians watch the U.S. reopen with life returning to normal in various stages, in addition to thoughts of attending sporting events, concerts and gathering with loved ones, employees are also starting to think about what their daily routines will look like in a post-coronavirus pandemic world.
For those employees who moved to remote work during the pandemic or those whose workplaces made changes to scheduling or to physical workspaces to reduce the numbers or proximity of people in the workplace at one time, thinking about a return to the pre-pandemic workplace can cause everything from elation to anxiety. Indeed, how employees are feeling about returning to normal can vary greatly from person to person.
Although we’re still in the third wave of the pandemic and many areas of the country still have restrictions, vaccination rates are steadily climbing across Canada. This means plans for return to work are becoming a clear focus for employers. While many employees look forward to reduced isolation and to sharing a workspace with their coworkers again, some are feeling very hesitant or even anxious about returning. Most people will experience some mixed emotions about the prospect of emerging from their work-from-home arrangements.
Here’s some things employers can do to help ease employee re-entry anxiety:
Start communicating early
Even if dates are vague at this point and plans are still being made, employers can manage employee expectations while helping them psychologically prepare to adapt their routines and return to the workplace by starting to communicate plans early. This will help employees to start thinking about what being in the workplace may look and feel like. It will also assist them in planning for things like changes in their routine or workday, child or elder care needs, transportation plans and the like.
If the intention of an employer is to phase in the return to work, they should tell employees what that might look like. If there are changes to the physical space, such as temporary changes to assigned cubicles to allow for distancing, or the addition of physical dividers or partitions, it’s important for employers to paint a picture of what the experience will be when staff return.
There may also be changes in the colleagues with whom employees worked prior to working remotely. While returning to the workplace will be a return to familiar routines for many, some things may have changed during the time away from the workplace that will require some adaptation. Information provided often, and with clarity, will directly help reduce anxiety related to the unknown elements of returning to work.
To gauge how employees are feeling about the return to the workplace — and to assess for gaps in communication plan or messaging — employers may wish to do periodic pulse surveys, leading up to and following the return to the workspace. This will provide employees with a venue to ask questions and provide anonymous feedback about any concerns. Subsequent messaging can be used to address these concerns, especially when a common theme emerges. A survey that includes the opportunity for narrative feedback provides a vehicle to hear the voice of employees and respond appropriately.
While a return to the workplace is a positive step toward a return to normal life, after spending long periods of time sheltering in place and avoiding contact with people, employees might be concerned about their safety from infection at work. They may feel overwhelmed about arrangements they need to put in place or by the change itself. If they use public transit to get to work, they may feel hesitant initially. Different people will have different feelings about what a return to the workplace means for them and adapt to change at different paces.
To quell concerns about health and safety, employers can make return-to-work health practices and policies easy to access and understand. They can reiterate the protocols they have in place to keep people safe. Create a safe and judgment-free space for questions and encourage people leaders to check in with their teams about how they’re feeling about the return to the workspace well before the slated return date — and then regularly afterward.
If an employee is refusing to return to work because of concerns regarding the coronavirus at work, employers can try to assess these concerns and reassure them of the steps they organization has taken to be compliant with public health orders and requirements. Some employees may have concerns that are fact-based and reasonable; for example, those with an underlying health condition that excludes them from getting vaccinated and gives them an increased risk of serious health implications from infection may need an accommodation like an alternative work arrangement. Employers should treat situations like this as they would any other medical accommodation.
Change can be stressful even when it’s a return to something familiar. Consequently, employees may have challenges rebalancing work and life. Now is a good time for employers to take an inventory of the resources they have in place that can help, including resilience training, stress management and mindfulness, but also supports for grief and addictions.
Employers can promote their employee assistance programs and/or extended health benefits providers for additional supports, communications, webinars or self-help materials that can be easily accessed by staff as needed. Organizations can also highlight self-assessment tools to help employees monitor their feelings and identify potentially unhealthy levels of stress or anxiety, as well as offering other mental-health supports and resources available via employer benefits and wellness programs.
Since some employees experienced trauma during the pandemic, it’s a good idea for employers to have resources readily available for people leaders about how to identify people who are potentially struggling and how to have conversations about those observations. It’s important to de-stigmatize therapy, counselling and support. The coronavirus crisis has been hard for many employees and normalizing anxious or difficult feelings will help them reach out for the help they need.
Beyond an emphasis on mental wellness, employers should give some special attention to social wellness as well. Although it may seem that simply bringing people back together addresses this wellness pillar, after a lengthy period of little face-to-face social interaction, employees may need some assistance reconnecting with their colleagues at work. Employers should look for opportunities to reconnect teams as their return to the workplace unfolds.
When possible, employers should allow for some self-determination of pacing in the return to the workplace. As employees have probably reorganized their days working from home around their home lives, it will be important to be flexible about the start and end of a workday or allow employees the ability to continue to work from home for some of the work week, at least in the beginning. Additionally, employers can allow employees to set their own boundaries in the early stages.
While someone may feel OK about being in the office, they may not yet be comfortable getting on a plane to travel for work. Employees will appreciate having as much autonomy and control over their return to workplace as possible.
If your post-pandemic organization includes hybrid workers who will split their time between working from home and work or a mix of both co-located and remote team members, people leaders may need additional resources or supports on effectively leading hybrid teams. Special considerations include keeping team members engaged and connected to each other, communicating effectively and ensuring equity in information sharing and evolving how collaboration happens.
Change can be difficult, even when it’s positive. Re-entry into the workplace is only one aspect of pre-pandemic life that will require re-adaptation for employees. Uncertainty will fade as time passes and people get more comfortable and familiar with their new routines, especially with employer support.