How to prevent return-to-workplace anxietyby
While the lifting of all lockdown rules in the UK has been delayed for another 4 weeks, employers must not ignore the concerns of employees who may be feeling anxious about the return to work. The next steps must be taken with everyone on board.
Covid-19 brought with it many changes to employee working conditions. While some people found themselves operating front and centre of a global pandemic, others had to quickly get to grips with working from home, possibly for the first time. Many have noted the benefits of remote working, such as improved work/life balance and reduced commuting times. Others, however, are looking forward to a return to old working habits and some form of ‘normality’.
Business leaders need to ensure there’s a well-organised transition period between where they are now and the long-term model they see themselves operating in the future.
As workplaces plan to re-open and welcome employees back, leaders must take into account the feelings of anxiety or uncertainty some may feel about returning. It’s essential that they listen, understand, and respond to individual employees’ needs and concerns if they want to facilitate a smooth transition to the new world of work.
No need to rush
Already, some traditionally office-based organisations have announced ‘remote-first’ policies, allowing certain employees the opportunity to work from home indefinitely. Meanwhile, others are strongly advocating for hybrid models, or a full return to the physical workspace. Whichever direction your organisation decides to go in, it’s important not to rush or force your employees into doing anything they are not yet ready for.
Some workers will inevitably feel anxious about the coming months. For those who started a new role remotely, meeting their teams in person could be a really exciting moment – but it may also be nerve-wracking. For those employees who have worked on the frontlines, anxiety may be linked to increasing numbers of customers or colleagues returning, or possible changes to the safety measures in place. Alongside this, many people will be worried about the health implications of in-person work – and the public transport they take to get there – especially if they are, or live with, more vulnerable individuals. There’s a catalogue of concerns and nuances to be understood and carefully considered.
Business leaders need to ensure there’s a well-organised transition period between where they are now and the long-term model they see themselves operating in the future. A fundamental part of developing a future of work strategy that works for all employees is first taking the time to consider how to make everyone feel heard, supported, and confident about what’s next.
Instead of guessing, or making assumptions about what people want, business leaders should listen to their people to identify the best way forward for each individual and the wider organisation.
Listening is key
The workforce is not a monolith, nor is the remote working experience. According to one survey, more than half (56%) of UK employees working from home over the past year have felt an increase in their level of happiness, with a similar proportion (55%) using their lunch breaks to focus on their personal lives.
For others, however, this period has blurred the boundaries between work and home life and made it more difficult to switch off. Reports have found that some employees working from home are spending longer at their desks than before the pandemic and are facing bigger workloads. They have also been found to take shorter lunch breaks and work through sickness. While it’s important to note that remote working during a global pandemic is not the same as remote working during more ‘normal’ times, this experience will have inevitably shaped employee perceptions.
The range of experiences reminds us that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead of guessing, or making assumptions about what people want, business leaders should listen to their people to identify the best way forward for each individual and the wider organisation. It’s essential to establish and maintain a continuous dialogue with employees to truly understand how they’re feeling and the varying factors influencing their sentiment.
How technology can help
Technology is instrumental in helping us get the answers to these questions. By regularly surveying employees and paying attention to their responses, businesses can start to truly understand their concerns and make moves to address them. The ‘regularly’ point is key here.
Many businesses still undertake an annual engagement survey, but when the landscape is changing so rapidly, this cadence will not get you the real time information you need. Instead, employers need to use the technology available to them to get a view of engagement that’s dynamic, always up-to-date and connected across the entire organisation.
They also need to use technology to listen intelligently to what their employees are saying. This means adopting software that will help them ask the right questions, to the right people, at the right time – and that will adapt based on previous answers, feedback, or events.
Businesses need to be strategic about their plans for re-opening, as well as responsive to the needs of their workforce.
Creating highly targeted surveys in this way helps to ensure that employees engage with them, and employers receive the relevant information they need to make rapid and well-informed decisions. What’s more, with confidential and automated surveys, employees can feel confident about giving honest feedback. This is the key to building an open dialogue with employees, and helping to promote trust and long-term engagement.
There will of course be uncertainty in the coming months as some of the pandemic’s home workers begin to return to the workplace. The next steps may feel daunting for business leaders too. With the right technology and real-time insights at hand, however, the opportunity to engage and even recalibrate your relationship with your employees is huge.
Top tips for your office reopening
- Follow government, industry and legal advice to keep everyone safe and secure.
- Open-up dialogue and seek to understand what employees need to feel confident and safe for any re-integration.
- Actively listen with empathy to workers and demonstrate their concerns are valid and being addressed where appropriate. This will instil confidence that any return program is deliberate and thoughtful.
- Be open to and adaptable to change. Employees have unique concerns and needs that are subject to change on a weekly, or even daily, basis.
Ultimately, businesses need to be strategic about their plans for re-opening, as well as responsive to the needs of their workforce. We’ve collectively been through a lot over the past year, so it’s essential that the next steps are taken with everyone on board.
Interested in this topic? Read Four ways HR can manage the transition back to work for the service industry.