In a matter of weeks between March and April 2020, millions of people shifted their work habits. They traded traditional commutes for walking to their dining rooms and dens from their bedrooms. And as disorienting as the experience was for many, the vast majority became accustomed to remote work.
Over a year later, 61% of surveyed adults say they’d like to keep telecommuting. Nevertheless, plenty of companies are bringing their employees back to the workplace. This contrast is bound to cause ripples of discomfort, personal concern, and even potential friction. After all, Covid has been curbed but remains a global threat.
How, then, can any business enforce a return to the office while keeping morale high? The answer lies in implementing measures to make the transition less grueling and more rewarding for employees.
If you’re facing the conundrum of going back to a pre-pandemic workplace, try these strategies. Each one is designed to promote team engagement as everyone returns to your office’s new normal.
1. Establish respectful communication protocols.
Let’s face it: Even with Zoom, your team has been isolated for over a year. They’ve adjusted, of course. Nevertheless, they’re not as accustomed to working through issues face to face as they once were. Additionally, they may have gone through tremendous mental strain, not to mention loss. For some, this may mean they have trouble communicating effectively—and more apt to judge or blame colleagues.
You can help your employees get through the adjustment period of returning to work by modeling positive communication. Why is the onus on you as a leader? As an article from behavioral and mental health provider Pathways at Work notes, “Unhealthy dialogues can be incredibly detrimental to teams if coming from upper-level leadership.” However, the reverse is also true: Top-down empathetic verbal and non-verbal communication resolves problems faster.
Of course, you may struggle to understand how to communicate more effectively yourself. Even if you instinctively tend to lead with respect and gratitude, consider taking a refresher workshop to improve your skill sets. You may even want to have everyone on your team sit through a webinar to better their approach to communication.
2. Offer employees increased work-home flexibility.
Your team members have proven they’re professional enough to handle working from home. Even though you want them to work onsite most of the time, consider offering hybrid flexibility. That is, broach the subject of allowing regular telecommuting one or two days a week.
A whopping 83% of employees would appreciate being able to work when and where they choose, according to Accenture. By making this possible, you’ll give your people the best of both worlds. At the same time, you can still make sure that you have your team at the office when it counts. The key to making a hybrid model successful is having a plan.
Sit down with your whole team or each department to map out hybrid options. Ideally, you’ll want people to arrange their schedules to meet the company’s needs, as well as their own. For instance, if you conduct weekly Wednesday departmental check-ins, you may want all hands on deck midweek. Yet you may be okay with having only half your team members present on Thursdays or Fridays. Work with personnel and human resources leadership to determine an approach that gives you coverage and demonstrates flexibility.
3. Stay open to making big and small changes.
In order to make sure everyone feels heard, safe, and supported, you may need to rearrange some aspects of your workplace. This could include anything from typical workflows to the layout of workstations. Here’s the thing: You can’t always predict the changes that you’ll need to make. Instead, you have to remain open-minded as everyone comes back into the fold.
What types of requests can you expect from your workers that you didn’t have to worry about before? The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) provides a comprehensive back-to-work Covid-19 checklist. It’s a terrific resource to use in anticipation of changes you might need to make. The list includes staggering food breaks, giving everyone access to cleaning calendars, and returning to the office in waves. You may want to add other items to your personal list depending on your workplace situation and setup.
Remember that you can’t predict everything. Your workers may throw you for a curveball. Instead of immediately saying “no” to their suggestions, find out if you can make them work. By taking all recommendations seriously, you’ll show team members you genuinely care about making their lives easier.
4. Allow people to get back into the groove at their own pace.
Some of your employees will welcome the chance to get back to the office. They’ll be the first in the door and happily talk to anyone who will listen. Nonetheless, others will feel like they’re exposing themselves to potential health issues. Or, they’ll miss being around their children, spouses, or pets all day.
You’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but that is not always true. Your team likely will need more than three weeks to feel safe, normal, and productive after coming back to the office. The longer they are away from their office desks, the more time they’ll need to re-establish those routines.
You may feel frustrated by the slow adjustment initially. However, your best bet is to give your employees the space to feel at home again—at work. Don’t expect productivity to be at its highest levels in the first month. That’s not reasonable, particularly if your team was away for the past year. You can’t expect to magically erase everything that has happened since March of 2020. Instead, accept that transitions can be challenging, and be prepared to work through issues as they arise.
Employee engagement has always been a priority for companies and those in leadership positions. Make sure your engagement levels don’t falter while employees return to the office from their remote work situations. . All you need to do is pay attention to your people’s needs and operate with a mindset of “We’ll get through this, too.” Because you will.