As the end of the UK lockdown approaches, millions of workers are preparing to see their colleagues face-to-face for the first time in more than a year. It should be something everyone is excited about… right?
But many of us are actually finding the prospect of seeing one another stressful. In fact, a study carried out by Envoy showed that two-thirds of respondents were anxious about returning to the workplace, with 20% saying they were “extremely worried” about it.
“It is no surprise that some workers will struggle to readjust to the daily commute and office environment after a whole year working from home,” says Andrew Cooke, Strategic Director at co-working and workspace provider Bruntwood Works. “A lot has changed. We’re used to everything being virtual, from mental wellbeing apps to online office socials. That needs to be reflected in how we return to the office.”
This poses a new challenge for business owners. How do we help everyone feel safe enough to come back to the office?
Here are some top tips for business owners and employees to get your ‘office mojo’ back.
How important is the office to us?
Despite some nervousness about returning, the vast majority of people do want to return to the office. Envoy found that 94% of people want to be back in the office at least once a week.
But what is it about the office that is so important to us?
Katy Leeson, Managing Director of Social Chain UK, asserts that being together in an office is essential for meaningful connection between team members. “When I look back, some of the best relationships I have now are those I built at the beginning of my career when in the office,” she says. “I made friends for life, and I want to replicate that for our employees. But to do it, I need to bring people back together in our office, in person.”
Katy also believes that creativity happens most in shared spaces. “I’ve also realised how much not being together has impacted new ideas. We’ve struggled – being such a close-knit office and dealing with people’s different waves of anxiety has really impacted creativity.”
So to reconnect and get back that creative spark, business owners need to make the office a place their staff WANT to be.
The first step? Making it feel safe.
How to make the office feel safe: Tips for business owners
- A lot.
If there’s one thing that amplifies anxiety, it’s uncertainty. Suppose you’ve mentioned to your employees that returning to the office is on the horizon, but you haven’t given them a time frame. If that’s the case, you may be creating unnecessary stress.
Instead, put down your return-to-work plan in writing and welcome feedback from your team. Create space for questions about the plan — perhaps in the form of a virtual Q&A where people can ask things anonymously. A forum helps those feeling most anxious put their mind at ease.
Remember to listen carefully. Those who are more worried about returning to work are more likely to consider things your plan doesn’t cover. If you’re open enough to listen to that feedback, it means you can cover potential blindspots early.
- Be flexible
The standard five-day office workweek might be history. Some of the biggest companies in the world — including Dropbox, Facebook, and Aviva — are adopting a new ‘hybrid’ working model, where employees split their time between home and office working.
It’s clearly popular with workers, too: surveys by BBC Worklife show that 72% of respondents want hybrid working in their companies.
Switching to a hybrid working model can alleviate significant stress for some of your team. Commuting twice a week is a lot less stressful than doing it every day, so it could help sway staff who are on the fence. You’ll also attract new talent that prioritise flexibility more than they did before the pandemic.
Even with hybrid working, you can take further steps to be flexible. Consider letting employees dictate their own start times. Commuting is practically brand new to your team by now, and many of their circumstances will have changed. If you can take the pressure off starting at a specific time, it means your team can prepare the way they need to without the rush.
- Make the rules super clear
Nervous team members will feel hesitant about returning to the office if the boundaries aren’t clear.
Put up signs around the office that reiterate social distancing and hygiene rules. Make sure they’re positioned so one can be seen from practically anywhere in the office. This means anxious staff can politely point to these rules if more relaxed team members get a little too close.
Finally, have clear procedures for entering and leaving the office. That way, your team can feel confident that their workspace is safe when they arrive.
- Bake wellbeing breaks into the day
The first day back in the office will be a little overwhelming, even for the extroverts. Help your team gradually adapt by including ‘wellbeing breaks’ into their day.
Well-being breaks look different for each person. Some people will enjoy a break with others over a coffee, while others will need some space to be alone. Speak to your team to find out who needs what to help them get through their day with a calm mind.
You also need to create space to talk. The Institution of Organisational Safety and Health (IOSH) says that “one way of improving mental ill-health within the workplace is an open discussion on a one-to-one basis.”
Ramp up the frequency of your one-to-one meetings for the first few months back in the office, and put mental health at the top of the agenda. “Talking about mental health with colleagues can be challenging, particularly as many worry about the stigma and prejudice that may come as a consequence of sharing their issues,” says IOSH. Be open and welcoming: it’s a hugely important part of helping people through this huge transition.
- Respect their rights
Even if you do everything right, you can’t guarantee your team will ever feel comfortable returning to the office. But the last thing you should do is force their hand.
Instead, let them know what their options are. Provide your staff with the latest government information about the options available to them, especially if they’re clinically vulnerable or have tested positive for Covid-19.
Ultimately, anyone who is forced to be in the office before they’re ready will only bring negativity with them, which can have a domino effect on your staff. Be patient: communicate with your team as much as you can so that when they do return, it’s when they’re ready.
Making it safe to reconnect
While working from home and in the office will both be critical parts of your business toolkit, the balance between the two after the pandemic will inevitably change. This means creating spaces that add value to our customers’ business and which power productivity.
At Bruntwood Works, we’re creating spaces that keep our customers happy, healthy and culturally fulfilled in their cities and towns. We suggest other businesses follow suit to ensure their staff have the smoothest transition back to office life.