After almost 3 months of slowly starting to see daily life get back to some sort of “normalcy”, we are still seeing uncertainty surrounding returning to the workplace. Many people feel unsettled about disrupting new routines to return to a workplace that may come with different dynamics. We are noticing that our clients, as well as our internal team at Salopek, are faced with unique challenges that accompany establishing a “new normal”. Salopek has compiled some of the key concerns and challenges we have seen as our clients return to the workplace as well as a few tips for supporting employees through this transition.
The first step in supporting your team during this transition is to understand the concerns your employees may be having about returning to the workplace. Each person will have a different comfort level and adaptability to new routines. Have an open discussion with your team and ensure you are actively listening before making decision and plans. This will be well received by your team and will make them feel like they were part of the process. Consider round table discussions or focus groups, rather than a survey to gather feedback, as this is a more engaging approach. Be clear to your team that although the organization will not be able to meet everyone’s needs, the objective is to hear from the team and then plan the best course of action. Be transparent about the business needs but also listen to the concerns of your team, realizing that if you want to retain your best people, a return-to-work plan needs to ensure that their needs are met and that they feel supported and safe. Here are some concerns reported by returning employees:
Cost of Living: This has been a hot topic, as the cost of living continues to rise, especially with the soaring pricing at gas stations and grocery stores. Depending on how long your employee’s commute is to work, as well as the parking situation, this is an added financial stressor for employees.
Commute: The use of public transportation, as well as the anticipation of heavy traffic and the increased cost to commute, are concerns for those returning to the workplace.
Physical & Social Interactions: Returning to the office can be concerning for those who are most comfortable staying at home and working independently. Moving back to a physical workplace often means interacting with others and many will have to adjust to being in social settings and learn how to work productively again in shared environment.
Health Risks: COVID-19 still remains a concern for some, and even though many are Vaccinated, we should be mindful of others comfort level and health concerns.
Caregiving: During the pandemic, many people began serving as caregivers to children, elderly family members, and those with other health conditions. Returning to the workplace can cause concern, as they will now be required to leave home which may have an impact on others they care for.
Disruption to New Routines: Many employees and employers are experiencing higher levels of productivity from a work for home arrangement. as new routines have created opportunities for greater efficiencies and there is a reluctance to let these new routines go as organizations contemplate returning to the office.
Here are some suggestions to help with your transition plan:
Communicate and Transparency is Critical: It is important to ensure open communication and check-in with your employees regularly. Managers should be conducting routine check-ins and consider providing mental health training to those managing others, on how to identify signs and/or behaviours that may be of concern and how to conduct proper check-ins. Help managers understand that connecting with employees to ask how they are doing, or to meet them for coffee for a work update, will speak volumes to your team and their sense of engagement and well-being. Be transparent with your employees and keep them updated on policies, procedures, flexible schedules, and remote working options, as well as ensure appropriate notice is given regarding an implementation timeline.
Flexibility: We have to accept and understand that employee’s routines and priorities have shifted over the many months they worked from home. It is essential for employers to acknowledge that the “new normal” will continue to evolve and work arrangements will as well. You will have to give enough time to allow for a smooth transition and stay flexible during this transition, while employees figure out logistics such as commuting, childcare, schedules, and work-life balance. Wherever possible, look at alternative work schedules, new remote work policies and flexible hours. Lastly, factor in the time to commute and be respectful of your employee’s time when scheduling meetings.
Recognize Signs of Post-Pandemic Effects on Mental Health: COVID-19 and years of isolation have had a very significant impact on people’s behaviours and thoughts. Many have suffered from mental health concerns as a result of isolation, and it is important to be aware of this as you transition employees back into the workplace. It is important to ensure that during your routine check-ins with employees, you are looking for possible signs of pandemic fatigue. These signs can include, but are not limited to: lack of motivation, tiredness, feelings of inefficiency, anxiety related to discerning who is “safe” or “not safe”, and lack of concentration. Invest in the mental health and wellbeing of your team. Many organizations are considering revising and/or implementing a Health and Wellness Strategy, which includes paid time off (personal days are being added to Vacation and Sick days) and a Health and Wellness spending account where the employee has control over how to allocate their dollars (e.g., yoga classes, childcare, education, retreat, fitness class etc.) Engage your team in developing the strategy and the Wellness Program to ensure it meets their needs.
Resiliency is Essential: Resiliency is key in a successful transition back to the workplace. Being an activist for resilience will help your employees manage stress and adapt to the challenges they will face during transition. Research shows that improving resilience in the workplace is associated with increased engagement, commitment to the organization, job satisfaction, satisfaction at work, and overall better health and wellbeing. Provide a psychologically safe working environment for your team that encourages them to set limits and boundaries around work hours, prioritization of sleep, and provides access to mental health support, if needed. Encourage your team to prioritize their mental health and ensure that the leaders in your organization set a positive example of this by offering up and attending sessions on mindfulness, meditation, or other avenues on how to manage anxiety and stress associated with change, during and after the transition to the workplace. These sessions should be part of your Health and Wellness Strategy and Program.
Support & Show Appreciation for Management: Be aware that those managing employees have played a critical role in supporting those experiencing stress and burnout during the pandemic. In doing so, they may be experiencing additional mental health fatigue, due to the added responsibilities throughout numerous months. Your managers would most likely benefit from extra support themselves. Make sure to recognize your manager’s efforts and show appreciation for what they have taken on. Offer additional support to your Management Team and provide simple acts of kindness and appreciation.
The most critical take away from transitioning back into the workplace is patience. You have to understand and accept that employees developed new habits and routines over the past two years, and many may feel resistant to return to a workplace, as they truly do not feel an urgent need to do so. Ensuring open communication with your team, maintaining flexibility, and monitoring employee’s overall health and wellness are all important. Create a gradual or phased approach to a transition plan by starting with hybrid schedules, if possible, to help ease your team into returning to the workplace, as well as allow you to continually assess their productivity. Try to remind your employees about the positive aspects of working collaboratively as a team and what they enjoyed most about working onsite. Lastly, it is essential to involve your employees as much as possible when creating a new “normal” and doing so as a team will help to drive positive outcomes.