7 Tips for a Return-to-Work Initiative

May 31, 2021 7:15:00 PM

Transitioning to the Post-Pandemic Workplace

In March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, many organizations faced tough choices about the sudden transition to remote work for some or all of their workforce. There were also accompanying challenges of new technology, remote meetings, the need to provide ongoing employee tech and emotional support and the challenge of meeting business objectives within an entirely new paradigm.

Now in early Summer 2021, as the U.S. continues to treat COVID-19 cases, and as vaccinations are ramping up across the country, businesses are facing new decisions about how, when, and even if, employees should return to the workplace.

From an employee perspective, the rapid transition to remote work was stressful and isolating for some, and many who experienced these challenges are looking forward to returning to the office environment. For others, remote work was a welcome change in lifestyle that provided flexibility, independence and a chance to work in a way that truly fit their personal and professional goals. Finally, for many employees, feelings about a return to the office will be a hybrid of these experiences. This, paired with new concerns about safety, is going to make the return to the workplace highly complex.

As organizations prepare to address the challenges of return-to-work plans, it will be important to acknowledge that in many cases, it will not be a return to things “as they were” prior to 2020. The pandemic has necessitated changes in workplace health and safety protocols, communication, management styles and employee support. It will be important for leaders to be flexible, thorough and consistent in communications, and a role model for showing support and encouraging individual control and decision-making.

Following are some considerations as organizations begin to plan for a return-to-work initiative, in whatever form that may take for their organization.

1. Acknowledge the impact

The pandemic has touched us all, and collectively we are changed. We have heard about deaths and hospitalizations related to COVID-19, and about families and friends being unable to visit elderly loved ones in nursing homes or hospitals. Parties, weddings and funerals have been canceled, and many have lived with the daily fear of contracting the virus and of spreading it to others.

We have experienced a loss of certainty, a loss of control, and a loss of connectedness with others. Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety have been on the rise, and the numbers of people experiencing substance abuse disorders, such as drug and alcohol abuse, have also continued to climb. These are all very real stories about the things that have happened to us and to those around us in the last year.

These experiences may also make it hard to predict who will wish to return their workspace, and who will not. For example, for some employees returning to the office may be a welcome opportunity for a change in scenery and to reconnect with colleagues. For others, such as those who are caregivers or concerned about their health, leaving home to return to the office can increase stress and worry. 

In either case, employers should not underestimate the collective impact of the stress, trauma and loss that has been experienced over the past year. As return-to-work plans are initiated leaders must anticipate that the effects of that trauma, in varying degrees, are still present and may be carried back into the workplace. Leaders must be prepared to acknowledge these issues with frequent, clear and compassionate communication.

2. Communication is more important than ever before

Throughout the pandemic, the notions of purpose and humanity have been front and center, with a heightened focus on the need for employee support and reassurance. While it seems like we have all experienced communication overload around COVID-19, particularly from the media, it will be important to differentiate your organization’s messages by focusing on putting employees’ well-being first and ensuring the communications resonate as tailored, supportive and actionable respective to your culture.

Now is the time for updates that are more frequent, messages that are supportive and calming, and a leadership presence that is consistent and transparent, with a specific focus on relating with compassion to build a sense of psychological safety for employees and a sense of trust in the organization. With all communication, it will be important to demonstrate empathy for individual employee situations, whether remote or on site, and their various concerns and experiences. Look at ways that make the most sense for your culture; these might include daily or weekly email updates, surveys, virtual town hall meetings or other means of organization wide communication.

3. Bridge the gap with your hybrid/remote workers

If your workforce (or part of it) remains remote, either part-time or full-time, consider specific strategies to connect and engage with these employees. As some or most return to the office, there is a risk that those working remotely could quickly feel left out, and become isolated, disengaged, and lonely. Contemplate ways that you can support remote employees differently (physically, emotionally, and socially) than other segments of your workforce. Ideas might include utilizing things such as delivery services, offering alternative commuter options and engaging in video chats and remote group meetings on a regular basis.

4. Involve employees in discussions about return-to-work changes

Talk with employees about their anxieties or concerns about returning to the physical workspace. Encourage them to speak up and have their voices heard. Ask them what they might need to feel safe and supported with a return-to-work initiative. Employees who are informed and participate in decisions about their employment environment tend to report greater psychological comfort in their workspace. This kind of engagement helps them adapt to some of the changes that they cannot control, such as requirements to promote physical distancing or mask mandates. Employers can solicit input regarding individual safety concerns such as staffing numbers, safe client interactions, physical barriers, and flexibility to rearrange furniture, to name a few.

5. Remind employees of available benefits programs

Re-communicate all benefits programs and offerings that are relevant, particularly as the transition begins to take place. Make sure managers are aware of all the offerings and have the information readily available should an employee ask. During regular staff meetings, have managers remind employees what is available to themselves and their families and ensure they know where to obtain more information should they need it. This might include the employee assistance program (EAP), bereavement, child care services, virtual care options, local community resources, wellbeing programs, emergency funds, social networks, etc.

Organizations may also consider expanding benefits and support where there are current gaps. This may be in the form of expanded access to behavioral health providers, promotion of virtual behavioral health providers, less restriction on EAP and mental health benefits, specialized caregiving navigation and resources, enhanced wellbeing resources for financial support, meditation, mindfulness, sleep, and additional virtual social support networks, etc.

6. Encourage managers to take an individualized approach

Now is also the time to think beyond one-size-fits-all approaches to how employees work best. Provide greater autonomy to managers and direct supervisors to check in with employees to see how they are faring, and to help employees develop individualized plans. Employees returning to the workplace may need new approaches to routines that they have lost; supervisors can play an important role in helping staff structure their day as they transition back to a physical workspace.

7. Demonstrate flexibility

Review and modify flexible work and leave policies, as appropriate. Look at your communications for different employee classifications - do you need to change your policies, resources and flexibility to provide enhanced support? Updated leave policies should be inclusive of those who are caregiving either from afar or from their homes, on leave for COVID-19 quarantine (self-quarantine or exposure) or grieving the loss of a loved one (COVID-19 related or not).

 Final thoughts

Following COVID-19, this “new normal” is likely to look very different from what we once knew. While changes will vary by industry based on infrastructure and way of doing business (e.g., airlines vs. manufacturing vs. retail), it is most certain that many employees will feel at least some sense of apprehension and fear when transitioning back to the post-pandemic workplace. Empathy and consistent communication from management and direct input from employees will be important, as will continued emphasis on consistent leadership, and psychological and physical safety. When organizational leaders are prepared to tackle these issues head on and address employee needs, employers can mitigate the impact of the transition back to work and be better prepared for managing their workforce in the post COVID era.

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