3 Ways Leaders Can Support the Return to the Workplace

How leaders can support the return to the office
How leaders can support the return to the office – Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Are you and your senior leadership feeling more optimistic about a return to business normality? If trends continue in the current positive direction, you have good reason to. Lockdown restrictions appear to be slowly easing up, various COVID vaccines are being made available to your workforce and your people can at some point expect to receive official documentation to prove that they have been immunized. 

According to Johns Hopkins University, we can expect to see the cumulative effects of the pandemic take their toll on employees’ mental health for a considerable time to come. If anything good has come from this pandemic, it is the collective realization that leaders need to pay closer attention to the mental health and psychological wellbeing of their most important strategic assets – their people. 

Nervous about returning to work

Employees are nervous because they are coming out of a pandemic in which a virus has not only has created illness but it has shaken the foundations of the world of work. Variants are still unknown.  Safety is not guaranteed.  Businesses are asking employees to a return to environments where they will be exposed to coworkers, some of whom, due to medical distrust, will choose not be vaccinated.

The consulting group Weber Shandwick and KRC Research recently conducted a national survey on workforce re-entry and the results are concerning. According to the findings, as much as 52% of employees stated they are concerned about the future of their company and their jobs. What this appears to suggest is that if leaders don’t address employee anxiety and give workers the tools and skills to manage their mental health, there is little chance of returning to acceptable levels of pre-Covid productivity.

So what is the plan for your team? Is a full-return or a partial return on the cards?
And what are your people thinking? Have you canvassed their opinion? Have you conducted a survey or some kind of vox-pop to gauge how your people feel about such a transition, whether it’s immediate or gradual? While many of my clients have indicated that they are looking forward to getting back to the familiar landscape of the office, many such as Chris are decidedly not.

Return to the office mental health
Return to the office mental health – Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Chris’s Mental Health

Chris is in a panic about returning to work on July 1st. She told me: “I feel the stress creeping back and my nice normal is coming to an end.” Since her company temporarily closed the office in March 2020, she took full advantage of time saved commuting daily from York, Pennsylvania to Timonium, Maryland. This change lulled Chris into a dreamy calm where she was able to sleep-in, go for a jog, have a relaxed breakfast with her husband, get groceries delivered and cook real meals in the evening. 

Now that her employer has signalled the return to the office, Chris’s mental health has visibly suffered. She is genuinely stressed about the long and potentially unsafe commute on public transportation. Her spouse is immunocompromised, so Chris fears she may bring the virus home if she returns to work prematurely. Pre-Covid, she vividly remembers dragging herself home at night feeling exhausted and mentally drained. You possibly have people like Chris whose mental health and productivity will suffer unless they are enabled and empowered to manage stress on a daily basis. 

On Your Frontline

Over the years, I have encountered the detrimental consequences of stress at all levels of organizations. In working alongside clients across industries such as health care, manufacturing and financial, I have been reminded of the serious financial impact on productivity and human performance when people (particularly those interfacing with customers at the frontline) are ill-equipped to manage cognitive well-being. 

Research from Global Corporate Challenge found that presenteeism, when employees show up to work but don’t perform at full capacity, costs business 10 times more than absenteeism. In this study of nearly 2,000 employees, respondents admitted to taking an average of four days off in sick time, but admitted to being unproductive an average of 57.5 days a year – almost three working months.

The good news is that when companies take proactive steps in addressing mental health at work, there is a definite return on investment.  Employees are the lifeblood of your business; they can make or break your success.  My program Name Normalize Navigate helps leadership by educating them on how to notice and support employees with mental health concerns. 

Consulting with my clients has shown me that taking action in the three areas listed below could markedly improve employee ‘connection’, focus and retention.

  1. Become the Chief Empathy Officer
  2. Increase your visibility
  3. Be flexible and creative

1. Become the Chief Empathy Officer 

According to BusinessSolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study, 82% of CEOs believed a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy. Yet only 68% of employees surveyed felt that their employers were empathetic to their needs. We perhaps cannot change such perspectives overnight but we can begin to reflect on ways in which we can put empathy at the heart and core of every instance of leadership communication. When your people feel more supported in challenging times, you are more likely to connect with them.

Your people will no doubt have endless questions. Will our jobs be the same? Which policies and procedures have changed and which ones are new? This new reality will be a source of stress and can in some instances could result in confusion, disorientation, depression as well as absence from work. The good news is that all of these changes can be successfully managed with appropriate support, flexibility and empathy.

In her book Fit For Purpose Leadership #6: Special Lockdown Edition, contributor Julia Felton defines empathy as the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective and feelings and the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. So as your people return to the office, it’s more important than ever that they are inspired by leaders who relate to their individual concerns and readily build an empathetic connection. Empathy cannot be allowed to take a backseat. It is now a strategic consideration in retaining key talent.

2. Increase your visibility

Time and time again, workplace surveys suggest that employees value leadership, honesty and visibility. Ask yourself who you want to be led by. People in their offices talking the talk? Or people where you can see them walking the walk? As your people emerge from the cocoon of working from home, they will need fresh connection especially with the people who aspire to manage them, lead them and inspire them.

That’s why it’s important (in fact, crucial) that you and your leadership team are visible in the workplace. The return to work requires that leaders are front and centre where people can see them so they they can understand what’s changed, what is changing and the direction the business is taking. Senior leaders need to articulate the vision share progress and milestones and rebuild the connection to the workplace as a place of familiarity and safety.

Take advantage of new and existing channels to reinforce the big picture and company vision. Leverage storytelling to build emotional connection to your people. Increase the interactivity of cross company events such as town-halls and take advantage of informal events where you have the opportunity to be seen, be heard and be liked. People are less stressed in environments where they have access to the people making decisions which affect them.

3. Be Flexible

COVID-19 has been a game changer in terms of how we all work and operate. The pandemic has introduced a new way of how we manage teams and individuals. Many of your people are possibly looking forward to returning to work but also expect changes to leadership styles, use of office space and work arrangements. Simply expecting to take up where we left off before lockdown is no longer an option.

PwC surveyed 133 Executives and 1200 office workers and discovered 83% of employers say the shift to remote work has been successful. The least productive workers need the office the most. But fewer than 1 in 5 Executives are willing to return to a workplace that mirrors the way it was pre-pandemic. What is all means is that your people will expect a greater degree of flexibility to accommodate new work practices and expectations.

On the one hand working from home has not been easy, particularly for those who had to manage the household, raise children, look after dependents and execute work tasks. On the other hand, you have people who now relish the flexibility and variety that working remotely has given them. It’s now time to support people who need to work from home for personal reasons as well as for mental health reasons and to accommodate to those (like Chris) who dread a break to the routines and rituals which have become part of their lives.

Conclusion

In summary, the workplace of the future post pandemic will be like nothing we have seen before. Many of your staff may prefer to work from home, from the office or from new locations entirely. You won’t know until you ask them.

Nonetheless, Employers across the board are recognising the demand for hybrid work environments and flexible arrangements to take into account how national and local expectations of work are changing fast.

But even more dramatic than physical changes will be the emotional and mental changes among the workforces of this new decade. Leaders can expect demands to increase their empathy, visibility and flexibility.

The companies and leaders that come out the other side of this situation intact will not be the ones with the healthiest balance sheets but the ones with the healthiest and most balanced people.

What are you thoughts to support your people’s return to the workplace?

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