Whether it’s phasing employees back in full-time or implementing a hybrid workforce model, many businesses are in the midst of planning if, when and how to bring remote employees back into the office.
A lack of proper preparation prior to bringing teams back could lead to a dip in productivity, heightened stress levels, and even increased turnover. It will be essential for managers of people to start preparing teams now to best support them through the transition.
Outlined below are five essential steps for managers to help support their teams while keeping them productive and engaged as they return to the office.
Communicating Re-Entry Plans and Processes
Employees shouldn’t be guessing when it comes to what office re-entry will look like – leaders should be over-communicating with their people, whether there have been recent updates to their plan or not. Employees who regularly receive updates from their companies are more likely to have positive views of their employer, with 55% more likely to be proud to work for their companies and 43% more likely to look forward to going back to the office. While much of this communication may be coming from executives and Human Resources, managers play an important role in ensuring policies are understood and addressing concerns. They should work to create an open dialogue with their team regarding the company’s re-entry, allowing employees to ask questions and express concerns openly, both before and during re-entry. A few tips on improving re-entry communication and addressing concerns include:
- Communicate re-entry plans via multiple channels, including written communication such as email and face-to-face through video conference, during team meetings and one-on-one with direct reports. This allows employees to digest the plans and ask questions, accounting for employees of various communication styles.
- Hold an open-forum video meeting for the team addressing FAQs, health and safety procedures, and any policies that have changed, such as dress code, time off, technology policies, and more.
- Film a video of the office to share with employees to showcase a new layout, if applicable, safety measures being taken, required procedures, and how to enter and move about the office appropriately. Especially if the team has grown or changed over the last year, providing a video tour beforehand will help reduce uncertainty and provide context to re-entry conversations.
- Check in one-on-one with direct reports regularly, both before and during re-entry, to gauge how everyone is reacting and adjusting to change. Address topics such as how their family is adapting to the employee’s return to the office, how they are feeling about the transition, and how their productivity and focus levels have been during the transition.
- Connect employees to a member of HR to talk through their concerns if needed, having first addressed them one-on-one to answer as many questions as possible.
- Help map out various alternate routes and means of transportation for employees not wanting to utilize public transportation and unable to drive themselves, considering if team members may be more comfortable carpooling, biking, or traveling during non-rush hours. One of LaSalle Network’s most recent reports found the top reported concern for employees returning to the office to be discomfort with public transportation and addressing this early on may help ease concerns.
Leading with Empathy
The last 15+ months of stress and uncertainty has likely impacted many employees in a variety of ways. Everyone will have varying degrees of comfortability in returning to the office and their own concerns, anxieties and personal preferences. Managers should be open to any and all feedback from employees regarding their re-entry and should seek out their staff’s ideas for how to best ease the transition. Displaying openness and a willingness to accommodate employees within reason can help employees feel valued and make the most out of returning to the office. Below are a few tips for leading with empathy through transitions:
- Involve employees in team re-entry decisions, when appropriate. This could mean asking for feedback regarding which employees would like to come in on what days (if phasing back in partial teams at a time) or offering flexible start times for those requesting not to commute during rush hours.
- Regularly ask employees how they are feeling about the transition back to the office, without assuming if they say they are ok one week they feel the same the next.
- Put the person first. Ensure every conversation starts by checking in on how the employee is feeling, before moving on to work performance.
- Consider re-communicating with employees what their performance metrics are, and how they will be evaluated. For many, the outcome of an employee’s work is more important than the amount of time spent working. Highlighting results-based work, rather than the number of hours spent at a desk, may help encourage and re-engage employees. This may allow some employees to work fewer hours while still producing the same quality.
A recent study of U.S. employees found that two-thirds are feeling anxious about returning to the physical workplace. To supplement external mental health programs and benefits, consider what community and team-based initiatives could help decrease anxiety among employees. This does not mean attempting to take the place of trained mental health practitioners but rather building a strong support system to help alleviate the effects of anxiety.
Managers should first remind employees of relevant perks and benefits available to them, such as therapy or support groups. A few additional tips include:
- Consider hosting wellness events, like book clubs, social distanced yoga classes, meditation or providing stipends for other mental health resources.
- Encouraging mental health days when necessary and appropriate. As an example, LaSalle Network gave all employees a mental health day in spring of 2020, and another two days off to use as a “spring break” in April 2021, to provide employees time to unwind.
- Create a wellness challenge that includes both physical and mental health activities. Employees can check off boxes such as “took a half-hour walk” or “did a guided meditation” to reach health goals as a team.
While teams likely collaborated virtually as a regular part of their work week, some employees may not have communicated as much with coworkers outside their immediate circle. Re-introducing employees to one another and to the in-office culture can help them get comfortable and engaged in office life after their time away. A few tips to do so include:
- Create a vision for how the team would ideally interact, collaborate, and produce independently. Identify areas that need to be improved upon within the team dynamic and create action items for how to cultivate those qualities or skills within the group. For instance, if the team needs to be more creative, consider who on the team can help lead brainstorming sessions, how to communicate issues to the teams to encourage innovation, and how to pair employees up to collaborate most efficiently.
- Host safe, social distanced team activities for those comfortable with attending. Consider putting together groups of employees who may not know each other well for small group events.
- Start meetings with an ice-breaker aimed at getting to know team members better. Consider having employees compile facts about themselves, things that have happened in their personal lives since working from home, and top lessons learned over the last year to share as a mini newsletter to the team. This can help spark connection and meaningful conversations during re-entry.
- Request more tenured team members to reach out to newer team members to check in and offer support as needed. Consider creating or refreshing on-site mentorship programs as well.
- Find opportunities for employees of different teams to work cross-functionally and collaborate.
Adapting Team Culture
Rather than expecting team interactions and collaboration to return to how it was pre-pandemic, acknowledge there may be an adjustment period after employees have been working independently for so long. Managers should view re-entry as an opportunity to build a stronger team dynamic and intentionally create an inclusive and supportive environment that maximizes the team’s strengths. A few ways to do so include:
- Re-frame re-entry as a new phase in an ongoing change, rather than a return to the way things were. Source ideas directly from staff on things they would like to do differently and how they would like to see their team evolve.
- Reflect as a team on the positive aspects and lessons learned from remote work, and brainstorm ways to integrate those elements into the office culture.
- Hold a re-entry bootcamp for the team, discussing strategies for maintaining productivity during the transition. Consider revisiting or refreshing team goals and brainstorming ways to maximize each employees’ strengths. This bootcamp can include best practices for collaborating with peers and how to communicate with one another when you need support.
While planning your return to the office, give employees time to prepare. If possible, inform employees of when they will be expected to return to the office as soon as the decision is made. With a set date, and most importantly time to mentally prepare, it can help reduce the uncertainty of the situation.
For more information on when are how companies plan to bring employees back, structuring and leading hybrid workforces, vaccination trends and more, download our re-entry index here.
Is adding headcount part of your office re-entry planning? Let us help. Get connected with us here.