Last month not only commemorated this nation’s birthday, it also marked the month that several companies began returning to their shared office space. Many companies started their return in July or have made plans to start returning this fall or early next year. And while some employees are excited to return, others are looking forward to continued remote work, but one thing’s for sure: anxiety abounds.
As employees head back into the office, it’s likely not going to look the way it did before. Not everyone will be going back, there will be new faces, new safety protocols to adhere to and possibly revamped physical offices. Not to mention, there will be new norms and office etiquette to navigate. Is the handshake now totally out? If so, what’s replaced it? Are all meetings now video meetings? After over a year of getting used to a less formal dress code when working from home, what does that look like now? Did that adjust as a result of the pandemic? So many questions. And for many workers, these only scratch the surface of their concerns.
For companies and business leaders, investing in rebuilding employee connections and easing their return-to-work anxiety can’t be overlooked or ignored. Let’s face it, employees are still feeling the effects of burnout and long-term isolation. Leaders need to look for the small and large ways they can begin to address those issues and repair the connections lost during a difficult year. The welcoming-back process should be well thought-out with some structure to help ease employees’ tension and create an environment that provides a way to rebuild connections in the right way, especially within the first few days and weeks. Here are some tips to make that happen.
Start with a soft opening
Rather than starting with a single date when everyone needs to be back by, create a window of time for people to come into the office before everyone is required to return. At our company, O.C. Tanner, that window was about a month. This is an effective time to bring back any borrowed office furniture and get reacquainted with the office space. It allows for people to see a few other colleagues around and begin the mental and emotional transition back. It also relieves some of the natural nervousness in a similar way that orientation sessions did when you were going to a new school.
Host a welcome-back week
We started formally welcoming our people back to the office with an “All Together” week-long celebration. To get things rolling, we shared a kit with each employee that included some company swag and sweet treats. We then followed that with events throughout the week, including a beach bash picnic and departmental luncheons. It was great to be able to mark a significant company milestone in overcoming the challenges of the past year by recognizing the people who got us through it all and made our success possible.
Make it comfortable
For many remote employees, athleisure has become a wardrobe staple over the past year and a half. Going back to more business casual attire overnight can be quite the adjustment. So consider allowing a more casual dress code for the first few weeks. At our company, we’re keeping it summer casual at least through the end of September.
Talk it through
Though you will have a number of people who can’t wait to be back, there will be a number who will not feel comfortable coming back. Some will worry about the health risks of interacting with people all day. Others, who thrived in the solitude of their home offices, may feel social anxiety about having to be around colleagues all day. Still others will worry about the potential productivity hit due to the inevitable interruptions designed in to shared workspaces. Everyone comes with their own perspectives and worries. Talk about the worries, share perspectives, help people come to terms with the changes. That may require a little more flexibility, especially the first few weeks back.
Encourage time to socialize
Many employees will want to connect with their colleagues once back in the office, but may feel pressure to not get too distracted from their work. While there is work to be done and we shouldn’t lose sight of that, make it a priority to emphasize the importance of investing time in reconnecting with old colleagues and getting to know new ones. Our team went to a local canyon and had a food truck come so we could reconnect in a casual outdoor setting. It takes a while to adjust to seeing people in 3D instead of on a Zoom screen. Leaders should set the example and show that it’s OK to spend time reconnecting with team members and investing time with them.
Though we may talk about “returning” to the office, it is actually the start of a new experience, not a return to an old one. The words of Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, apply in a very real way to our times: “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” We are just starting to get used to a hybrid schedule and it takes time to adjust. The key is treating everyone with respect and dignity, and inviting them to be part of establishing the new norms and practices that will help your team and company thrive in the months ahead.