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How to support your employees coming back to the office

Two women working on laptops in a studio

Once seen as a perk, flexible work became an overnight necessity for almost every workplace in 2020.

This pivot was particularly challenging for small business owners who had to adapt to meet the changing needs of their organisation and their people – generally without the help of a human resources team or Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

We’re now at a major turning point in the future of work. For many workplaces, there won’t be a return to ‘business as usual’ for a long time, if ever.

The challenge now for business owners is to determine their own ‘new normal’ as they juggle the needs of their organisation with what works best for each employee.

So, whether your staff are busting to get back into the office, want to do a mix of remote and in-office work, or don’t want to come back at all, read on for helpful strategies to support your employees’ transition back into the office.

If your staff are more than ready to return

Pat yourself on the back and be thrilled to have eager workers who are willing to jump back into office life.

However, for some employees, working from home triggered stress and anxiety due to issues at home, work–life imbalance or the loss of their work identity. In these cases, the adjustment period will still take time.

Some returning workers may experience a ‘reverse culture shock’ after returning to work, a phenomenon many ex-pats experience when they re-enter their home country.

How this plays out at work is that employees may have idealised what their previous lives were like and now have unrealistic expectations of the future – or they didn’t anticipate for the workplace to change in their absence.

How you can support them

  • Consider a ‘soft return’ to work so employees can become familiar with COVIDSafe practices, processes and the new ways of working without jumping straight back into a full 8-hour day or working week.
  • Ensure employees with less visibility (that is, those working from home) don’t feel like they’re being penalised for working flexibly with perceived threats to career opportunities or job security. As a leader, you might counter this by working from home one day a week yourself or holding all-teams meetings out of the office so employees know an equitable strategy is being led from the top.
  • Where possible, provide training and education to empower your team to do their best work. Consider what your employees need now. Perhaps it’s training on how leaders manage a team that’s partly in the office and partly remote, or additional support to manage mental health and wellbeing.
  • Ensure lines of communication remain open during their transition. As this group of individuals are your champions of change, ask them directly for their feedback on what’s working and what could be done better.

If your staff wish to continue a hybrid form of work

If your employees fall in this camp, they’re in the majority. International research from the Boston Consulting Group found that 88% of business leaders expect a more hybrid way of working in the future.

Pre-COVID only 15% of companies had a set remote work policy. Now 76% of companies have one.

Hybrid working arrangements, which blend working remotely and working from the office, can provide an effective workable solution.

If implemented well, hybrid arrangements can bring big benefits to business and their people, including a more sustainable work–life balance, improved wellbeing, and increased staff engagement and retention.

How you can support them

  • Technology has allowed us to reach people anywhere and at any time, but communication is key in supporting teams to work together. Draw clear lines and rules of communication, plan meetings within and across teams and encourage employees to include their working hours or days in the office on their email signatures.
  • Ask them directly how you can best support them and do your best to understand the key drivers for them wanting to continue to work remotely and in the office. Perhaps they’re more productive at home but still wish to have some level of face-to-face contact for meetings, connecting with colleagues or career progression. Gone are the days of assuming those who work from home are not working as hard as those in the office.
  • Maintain regular contact with workers via phone, email or through online meetings. Depending on the size of your business, there could be a real lack of visibility for some employees working from home. Implement regular virtual one-on-one meetings with remote staff to ensure they stay connected to updates they may have missed on their days out of the office.

If your staff are not ready to return

There’s no surprise that after 12 months of working remotely there’s some apprehension about returning to the office. A recent Roy Morgan poll commissioned by the City of Melbourne found that 74% of city workers were reluctant to go back into the office.

This ‘return reluctance’ is especially prominent for workers who might have had positive ramifications from full-time remote work.

Research conducted by Atlassian found that 39% of women want to work fully remotely (as opposed to a mix or from the office) compared to just 31% of men. For many women, the loss of expectations of ‘presentability’ freed them up to focus on doing their jobs – a benefit now motivating many to continue working from home.

Some employees will be experiencing concerns about their wellbeing and safety at this time.

Business owners have not only a moral obligation but a legal obligation to ensure people feel safe at work. Transition roadmaps need to ensure workers are both physically and mentally supported to return to their usual workplace.

Businesses that prioritise people and culture now will reduce employee anxiety and uncertainty in the future.

If a remote or hybrid style of work isn’t an option for your company, consider a compromise or implement short-term and long-term strategies to help your individual employees in their transition.

How you can support them

  • Implement a return-to-work strategy that includes consulting staff and leaders on their personal circumstances and needs. Ask them questions that relate specifically to your workplace to better understand their preferences, anxieties and barriers in returning to the workplace. For example, how many days would you like to be in the office? What concerns you the most about returning to work?
  • Be well informed and prepared to answer questions that may arise. Know what safety and wellbeing strategies are in place and be as transparent as possible. Listen to your team and be open to their health and safety suggestions. If employees feel like they have some agency over the decisions being made, they’re less likely to feel anxious about their situation.
  • Reiterate the benefits of working in the office or the elements of their role they may have previously enjoyed. For example, the opportunity to connect face-to-face with colleagues, a better ergonomic set-up, easier collaboration and a greater delineation between work and home.
  • Be aware of any language and statements that may be creating unnecessary anxiety and uncertainty, such as ‘our workplace will never be the same again’. Employers who create a clear vision and do their best to help employees understand the future state of their workplace will reap benefits in employee engagement and retention.

For more help

Still not sure where to start? We recommend downloading the template from COVIDSafe Plan, which gives you practical steps to put into practice for your business.

Sarah Cotton

Organisational Psychologist and Co-Founder and Co-Director | Transitioning Well

Dr Sarah Cotton is a registered organisational psychologist and Co-Director of Transitioning Well. With a PhD in work-stress and a specialisation in work-life wellbeing, Sarah is motivated to help individuals and organisations navigate the challenges of modern work. Recognising the impact the work-life interface has on our mental health and wellbeing, Sarah co-founded Transitioning Well in 2011.