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Return To The Office: Overcoming Uncertainty

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

With higher vaccination rates and less COVID-19 cases, many jurisdictions are making the decision to reopen. Leaders must now weigh the pros and cons of staying in a remote working environment, returning to the office, or keeping a so-called “hybrid” model where employees stagger days or have the option to return.

Corporate training experts from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) recently held a resourceful webinar outlining the gradual return to work and the mixed emotions staff may be feeling about it. Many individuals have reported feeling quite anxious about returning to the office, noting concerns with the commute and safety, while others are thrilled to finally have in-person, face-to-face interaction with colleagues again.

Helping With the Uncertainty

Jennie Gilbert notes that everyone, at all levels of the professional scale, have some degree of anxiety at times, and she recommends recognizing and eliminating (or reducing) automatic negative thoughts, or what she refers to as “ANTs.” If workers are expressing worry, she recommends leaders talk through it with them to understand why they feel the way they do and how everybody’s viewpoints on various matters differ.

Jennie also emphasized the importance of “leading with kindness” and returning to work with the mindset that team members are going to give their best performance despite the stressful transition back into the office.

As it’s almost impossible to know what another individual is thinking at all times, leaders have to check in with their staff. Management should be open to feedback and conversations with their colleagues regarding their anxieties, worries, and fears regarding returning to the workforce. Of course, also being open to positive feelings towards returning is crucial too. SAIT suggests that leaders ask and learn what makes their staff “grumpy” and burned out as well as what makes them content at work.

Another possible activity suggested in the webinar is a drawing exercise. Staff draws together with various shapes that have a specific meaning to them (relationship, change, goals, etc.) regarding their time working from home and then having one another try to interpret the drawings. This allows colleagues to get to know one another but may also give leaders insight into the thoughts and feelings of their staff.

Rebuilding The Culture

During the pandemic, many employers hired and onboarded new team members. For many, returning to the office will be the first time they have met outside of a Zoom or Teams call, so creating space to let the members of a team get to know one another is important. Resources such as Liberating Structures help leaders to build their teams and can help everyone feel connected and comfortable in a team.

Leaders may also want to create personal (but not too personal) questions and have each team member answer one or two at the beginning or end of a meeting to both get to know one another better and to make the work environment feel a lot less tense and impersonal. It is important to recognize that some people may not be the same as they were prior to the pandemic and many of us have changed to some degree.

Creating a Culture of Psychological Safety

SAIT’s work touches on “psychological safety,” which refers to the shared belief that each team member is welcome to speak up without the risk of rejection or judgment. This allows team members to feel comfortable asking questions and providing input.

Psychological safety goes far beyond just “being nice” or supporting every single decision by other teammates, as Dr. Timothy R. Clark outlines four levels of psychological safety: Inclusion, Learning, Contributor, and Challenger. Clark says if these four criteria are met, employees feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to question the status quo without the fear of any form of retaliation.

It Starts with the Leaders

Leaders must also engage in self-care when returning to the office, because this in turn helps them recognize the signals their workers are giving off. In a study from 2020, Consumer Health Products Canada found that over half of surveyed Canadians were looking for ways to practice self-care from their homes, and many experts have agreed that taking care of yourself makes it easier to manage others.

Things have been hard on almost everyone since the abrupt beginning of the work-from-home shift, so recognizing hard work and the impact of your employees’ dedication can be very beneficial to their happiness and well-being. Many successful leaders demonstrate how valuable their employees are through various forms of recognition. While the way leaders recognize their employees doesn’t have to be overly extravagant, there are many creative ways to show appreciation and, sometimes, even just an email can boost morale.

Ultimately, a key to a successful return to the office will be managing your workforce’s anxieties and worries about it. Transitioning to a home environment was stressful for most people, and returning to the workplace will be, too. However, if you plan well, listen to your staff, and implement flexibility, your dog will be more nervous than you about going back to the office.

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