Written by Jodie Case | 22nd July 2021

If you are opening up the workplace, or making plans to, be aware that your teams may be experiencing return to workplace anxiety after more than a year of remote working.

If you have people who are reluctant to go back to the workplace, we’ve suggested how you can help in our blog. But here’s some advice on how to ease all of your teams back in:

Find out how people are feeling

For those who started a new role remotely, meeting the rest of the team in person could be really exciting – but it may also be nervewracking. Anxiety may also be linked to people gathering in one place again and the safety measures your office has in place.

Any of these concerns need to be understood and carefully considered and it’ll be far easier to help your team if you know how they feel. Don’t assume your employees will tell you if they’re feeling anxious – you need to encourage them to do so.

Have one-to-one meetings with every employee – ideally before they return to work to discuss any concerns. This can reassure employees of the ongoing support you will provide, such as Employee Assistance Programmes.

No need to rush

Already, we’re seeing some businesses are allowing employees the opportunity to work from home indefinitely. Meanwhile, others are gearing up for hybrid working (a blend of home and the office) or fully returning to the office. Whichever you decide to do, it’s important not to rush your employees. Ease them back into office life without asking them to push too far out of their comfort zone too quickly.

For example, consider staggering the schedule of those working in the office. If possible, offer flexibility in remote and in-office work and working hours to help alleviate worry for your staff. These adjustments may only be temporary but will go a long way in easing anxiety about returning to the workplace.

Also, give your employees the freedom to say, “I’m not ready yet,” and you will find that when they are ready, they will be more committed to their return.

Pay attention to furloughed workers

If some of your team have been furloughed for the last 16 months, it’s going to be a challenge getting back into the swing of things.

Nearly a third (31%) of furloughed workers are feeling ‘forgotten’ by their employers, according to research by Westfield Health. Therefore, its essential that some form of ‘re-induction’ or ‘re-onboarding’ process should be considered.

If you’re stuck on where to start, we suggest it should cover the following:

  • A welcome back to the company – one to one meeting and/or team meeting
  • Wellbeing and mental health discussion – understand any concerns they might have
  • A health and safety briefing on any Covid related changes (such as social distancing, if masks need to be worn etc).
  • Any changes to company rules and procedures

Don’t forget to carve out time to socialise with the rest of team – furloughed employees may feel disconnected and so rebuilding connections and a strong culture should be a priority.

Training or retraining may also be necessary, i.e. if an employee feels they have been away from their job for a long time and could benefit from a refresher session.

Furloughed employees will need ongoing support, particularly for the first few weeks.

Safety first

As an employer your first responsibility is the safety and wellbeing of your staff. Restrictions may be lifting on July 19th but Covid is likely to affect the way you can safely operate for some time to come.

A survey by Honeywell of 2,000 workers in the UK, US, Germany and Middle East finds that 59% of workers are anxious about their colleagues not following Covid-19 health and safety rules. As a workplace, you need to take steps to make employees feel more at ease.

This could include rearranging your office layout to ensure some kind of social distancing, taking a phased approach to returning to the office or alternating work schedules to ensure everyone feels comfortable working in the same space.

If you can, it might be helpful to implement contactless systems for the office like motion-detected sanitiser dispensers.

Most importantly, whichever safety measures you implement, these need to be communicated to staff – and clearly – before they return to the workplace.

Provide mental health support for workplace anxiety

A lot of businesses have ramped up their wellbeing efforts for staff over the last year, and this shouldn’t stop once people go back to the workplace. Making mental health support easily accessible and focusing on creating an open environment to discuss anxiety is essential.

Setting up a mentoring system within your business can be a great way of getting your employees talking to each other about their mental health and providing valuable, one- on-one support. Sometimes people feel confident speaking to someone who isn’t their manager – that’s just the way it is.

Having dedicated staff members for wellness, such as mental health champions or mental health first aiders, helps open up the conversations and signpost someone to go to if you need support. Members can organise activities each month to raise awareness of mental health and boost team wellbeing such as a coffee and chat.

Have a back to work plan (and share it!)

Having a return to work plan is crucial for getting your employees back in the office, but do your employees know what’s happening? Even if your plan isn’t fully mapped out, employees want to know that their wellbeing and safety is being considered.

This could include expectations for work schedules, with clear guidelines about flexibility, and the resources and tools you offer to help your employees cope with the return.

Once you have your plans written out, make sure to distribute them widely. If possible, hold drop in sessions to answer employee questions and help everyone feel comfortable with the plans.

Remember that staff should be given a reasonable period of notice for when they will be expected to return to ‘normal’ work conditions and when furloughed employees should be back on full-pay. The more notice you give, the less you are adding to a list of worries.

While the return to the office will be a challenging time, it also brings many opportunities for collaboration, team building, socialising and productivity that we have been missing out on. Focusing on communication, empathy and respect will help when easing the transition back into the workplace.

During the return to work process, you may come across other challenges as well as staff anxiety. Feel free to contact us with any questions you have at [email protected].