How to prepare employees for returning to the office?

Companies have recently had to face the challenge of express implementation of remote working, and the vision of returning to offices from a forced home office is already on the horizon. But is it enough to give a signal to the employees that we are going back to the offices and count on everything returning to normal by itself?

Unfortunately, what we have known so far as the norm may not return for some time. Probably by the time the coronavirus vaccine is introduced on the market, we will have to change our habits to prevent it from spreading. These restrictions will also not bypass the office space. Workplaces potentially belong to the group of places where the transmission of the virus is facilitated due to the accumulation of numerous people in a small space and usually closed air circulation. This is indicated, among others, by a study from South Korea, which describes a case of coronavirus infection of half of the employees from one floor of an office building. Therefore, adapting the space to the emerging guidelines will be one of our priorities. When deciding to return to the office, we should first of all take care of the health of employees and prevent the development of the epidemic.

Protection of employees against the coronavirus itself is not our only problem. We must realize that the global pandemic is an unprecedented situation and we are struggling with a kind of social trauma. Firstly, we are dealing with a threat to health and life, which in itself is an extremely stressful factor. But the second, less obvious consequence is that over the past weeks many people have been living in great uncertainty, not knowing what awaits them tomorrow. Such long-term stress will undoubtedly affect all employees. Psychologists are already reporting an increased number of serious depressive episodes and suicide attempts. We are also seeing an increase in domestic violence, and doctors are receiving more and more patients who complain about psychosomatic diseases. All this is a result of the stress that has accompanied us since the beginning of the epidemic and its effects will be more and more visible to us in the near future. That is why it is so important to take special care of the mental health of our employees right now.

How to take care of mental health of employees?

Think about all employees

Thinking about how to prepare for the return to the office we will have to make a number of decisions. Let’s consider whether we have people among our employees who are at risk of acute coronavirus transmission. This may be difficult, because while the age of our employees can easily be checked, we should remember that there is no obligation to inform the employer about their health condition. It may turn out that among our employees there are people with impaired immunity, who should especially take care of their health during the transition period. It may also happen that our non-risk workers, for example, take care of older family members at home – so they do not want to put their health at risk. Employees may also not be able to find someone to look after the children while schools are still closed. Therefore, after announcing the return to the office, it is worth to leave the workers a “gateway” and inform them that if someone is in a complicated situation, the return to the office will be arranged individually.

Let me choose

Give your employees time to prepare for their return. During these few weeks, everyone has already established a certain routine of working from home, which gives a sense of security in times of uncertainty. Breaking this rhythm overnight will cause disorientation and reduce employees’ efficiency. The transition from office to remote work was a sudden and quick decision that required flexibility and quick adaptation to new realities. This was associated with a decrease in efficiency during the first weeks. Returning to the office does not have to, and should not even be introduced as quickly. If we managed to work out remote working procedures and our company does not suffer losses because of this, we do not have to hurry so much. That is why it is worthwhile to inform the employees about their possible return in advance – preferably at least 2 weeks before the planned date. This will give employees time to prepare for the next shift. Let’s also consider whether we can’t let our employees choose when exactly they can return to the office. This will give them a sense of influence that was definitely lacking during the transition to forced remote working or during forced national quarantine. For example, we can set a two-week transition period and the employee or the individual teams can decide for themselves on which day to return to work at the company.

Talk to employees

In all of this, before making a final decision about when to return, let’s not forget to simply talk to the employees! Before we take decisive steps to prepare the office, make sure that our employees are ready for it. Perhaps they still have fear and do not want to return to the office because they think it is risky? If so, forcing them to return can only have negative effects – such as reduced efficiency, increased absenteeism and reduced trust in the employer. In the case when opinions in the company are divided, a gradual return to the office may work well – at the very beginning those people who want to come back faster because, for example, at home they do not have conditions to work or those people who are necessary in the office and only in the next stages those for whom returning to the office at the first date is problematic.

We are in the office – what next?

Transition period

Once we get back to the office, let’s give everyone time to adapt to the new-abundant reality. Employees will have to work out the rhythm of work from the office again, but also remember how to work in the open space. The challenge may be to adapt anew to another form of distractions such as the phone calls of colleagues next door, a loud printer or the general office bustle. The whole rhythm of the day for some people will have to change again. Since there is no need to commute to remote work, it is likely that many people will get up later during this time and their rhythm of day and hour of sleep has already changed. This may make them sleepy and irritated during the first days in the office. It is worth taking all these factors into account and considering what can be done to make this transition period as painless as possible for everyone. The best solution would be to plan the first days for a time when there is less demanding work and avoid the hottest periods, e.g. the end of the month when the monthly targets are being set. It is also a good idea to leave employees the opportunity to work remotely 1-2 days a week. On the one hand, it will allow for a more gradual return to work, and on the other hand, it will meet the needs of employees who have already tasted remote work and will probably expect this possibility anyway.

Transparent communication

The new reality in the office is also worthwhile to be inspired by a clear message that explains how the company is doing and what to expect in the coming months. If there is such a possibility, let’s organize a meeting of the whole company, during which the management will tell you what are the chances and threats related to the market situation. Many people are currently afraid of losing their jobs and expect information about the company’s response to the difficult situation and whether their positions are at risk. An appropriate message will reduce the feeling of uncertainty and clean up the atmosphere. Well informed employees will be able to focus 100% on their work instead of thinking about what their situation will be like and whether they have anything to fear. We should remember that even if the situation is a crisis and we will be honest about it, we can gain a lot – loyal employees, knowing the situation, will get even more involved in helping the company. During such a meeting we should also remember to pass on new rules of staying in the office. Depending on the guidelines of the Chief Sanitary Inspector, let’s inform everyone about the required intervals, disinfection of office equipment and procedures in case of a coronavirus suspect in one of the employees.

Stress relief

After a few weeks of isolation and stress, a safety valve will certainly come in handy, which will help to shed all negative emotions. If the epidemiological situation allows it, let’s think about organizing the integration of employees. It is best to include elements of physical activity and healthy competition in such integration. Sport is a very good way to react to nervous situations – you could say it’s a “little reset” for the mind. We can organize e.g. company volleyball games or go to paintball in combination with an integrative outdoor grill. However, if it turns out that for some time this form of entertainment will not be available for us, let’s think about small integration initiatives in the office. Maybe let’s make an appointment for breakfast together on some day, or let’s order a pizza during a longer lunch break? For example, we can organize a quiz about the company with prizes. Any such initiative will allow everyone to break away from the idea of a pandemic and return to the old ways of working.

The role of managers

Let us not forget about the role of managers in the process of adaptation to the new reality. They will be on the front line and they will struggle with the negative effects of the whole situation on employees. Therefore, let’s remember to make managers especially sensitive to signs of high stress in themselves and their subordinates. Let’s prepare them to react to them and how to deal with them. Here we can consult with a business psychologist who will help us to work out appropriate solutions to prevent a greater escalation of stress in employees.

Summary

Never before have we had to switch to remote operation in such an abrupt mode and on such a large scale. But just like that, we have never returned to the office in times of epidemic danger. Therefore, let’s not treat the return to the office as a return to the old reality, which should not surprise us. Let’s not take anything for granted, but treat the return to the office as a new challenge, the effects of which we cannot 100% predict. Let’s prepare for this event on all fronts so that as few things as possible surprise us in the near future and our company and our employees lose as little as possible. We hope that the above guidelines will help you prepare your employees for the return to the office.

Piotr Pawłowski

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