Companies recently had to face the challenge of express implementation of remote work, and the vision of returning to offices from a forced home office is already on the horizon. However, is it enough to signal employees that we are returning to our headquarters and hope that everything will return to normal?
Unfortunately – what we have known as the norm so far may not come back for a while. By the time a vaccine against the coronavirus is introduced, we will probably have to change our habits to prevent its spread. These restrictions also apply to office space.
Workplaces potentially belong to the group of places where the transmission of the virus is facilitated due to the fact that many people are gathered in a small space and, most often, the air circulation is closed. This is indicated, among others, by a study from South Korea, which describes a case of coronavirus infection of half of employees on one floor of an office building. Therefore, adapting the space to the emerging guidelines will be one of our priorities.
First of all, we are dealing with a threat to health and life, which in itself is an extremely stressful factor. However, a second, less obvious consequence is that many people have been living in great uncertainty over the past few weeks, not knowing what tomorrow is for them. Such prolonged stress will undoubtedly affect all employees. Psychologists are already reporting an increased number of major depressive episodes and suicide attempts. We also observe an increase in domestic violence, and doctors see more and more patients who complain of psychosomatic diseases. All this is the result of the stress that has accompanied us from 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 particular care of the mental health of employees now.
How do you look after your employees’ mental health?
Think about all employees
Thinking about it, how to prepare for back to the office we will have to make a number of decisions. Let’s consider whether there are people among employees who are at risk of acute coronavirus transition. It can be difficult, because while the age of our employees can be easily checked, remember that there is no obligation to inform the employer about your health. It may turn out that among our employees there are people with reduced immunity who should, in particular, take care of their health during the transition period. It may also happen that our employees who are not in the risk group, for example, look after elderly family members at home – therefore they do not want to endanger their health. Staff 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 leaving the employees a “gate” and informing that if someone is in a complicated situation, the return to the office will be arranged individually.
Let me choose
Give employees time to prepare for their return. During these few weeks, everyone has already developed a certain routine of working from home that gives a sense of security in times of uncertainty. Breaking this rhythm overnight will cause confusion and reduce employee efficiency. The transition from office work to remote work was a sudden and quick decision that required flexibility and quick adaptation to new realities. It was associated with a decrease in efficiency in the first weeks. Return to the office does not have to, and should not even be, entered as quickly. If we have managed to develop remote work procedures and our company does not suffer losses from it, we do not have to hurry so much. Therefore, it is worth informing employees about a 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 cannot allow employees to choose when exactly they can return to the office. This will give them a sense of influence that was definitely lacking when switching to forced remote work or during a national forced quarantine. For example, we can designate a two-week transition period and the employee or individual teams will be able to decide for themselves on which day they decide to return to work in the company.
Talk to the employees
In all of this, don’t forget to just talk to the employees before making a final decision on when to return! Before we take decisive steps to prepare the office, make sure that our employees are ready for it. Perhaps they are still fearful and do not want to return to the office because they think it is risky? If this is the case, then forcing them to return can only have negative consequences – such as lowering efficiency, increasing absenteeism and reducing confidence in the employer. In the event that the opinions in the company are divided, a gradual return to the office may work well – at the very beginning, those who want to return faster, e.g. because they do not have working conditions at home or those who are necessary in the office and only in the next stages of people for whom returning to the office on the first date is problematic.
We are in the office – what next?
When we get back to the office, let’s give everyone time to adjust to the new-old reality. Employees will have to work out a new work rhythm from the office, but also remember how to work in open space. The challenge can be adapting to another form of distraction, such as phone calls by colleagues next door, a loud printer, or the general buzz in the office. Some people’s whole day rhythm will need to change again. Since you do not have to commute to work remotely, many people probably got up later during this time, and their daily rhythm and sleep hours had already changed. As a result, the first few days in the office may turn out to be sleepy and irritable. It is worth considering all these factors 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 when there is less work required and avoid the most hot periods, e.g. the end of the month when monthly goals are being met. It is also a good idea to allow employees 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 experienced remote work and will probably expect such an opportunity anyway.
A new reality in the office should also be initiated with a clear message that explains how the company is doing and what can be expected in the coming months. If possible, organize a meeting of the entire company, during which the management board will tell you about the opportunities and threats related to the market situation. Many people now fear losing their jobs and expect information about the company’s response to a difficult situation and whether their jobs are at risk. The right message will reduce the feeling of uncertainty and will clear the atmosphere. Employees who are well-informed about the situation will have the opportunity to focus 100% on their work, instead of wondering what their situation will look like and whether they have anything to fear. We should remember that even if the situation is crisis, and we will be honest about it, we can gain a lot – loyal employees, knowing the situation, will be even more involved in helping the company. During such a meeting, we should also remember to disclose the new rules of staying in the office.
After a few weeks of isolation and stress, a safety valve will certainly come in handy to help clear out all negative emotions. If only 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 relieve nervous situations – you could say it’s a “little reset” for the mind. We can organize, for example, corporate volleyball games or go to paintball combined with an outdoor barbecue grill. However, if it turns out that this form of entertainment will be unavailable for us for some time, let’s think about small integration initiatives in the office. Maybe let’s have breakfast together on a day, or order a pizza during a longer lunch break? In addition, we can organize, for example, a knowledge quiz about the company with prizes.
The role of managers
Let’s not forget about the role of managers in the process of adapting to the new reality. They will be on the front line, and they will struggle with the negative effects of the whole situation for employees. That is why we should remember to especially sensitize managers to signs of high stress in ourselves and our subordinates. Let us prepare them for how to respond to them and how to deal with them. We can have a consultation with a business psychologist who will help us develop appropriate solutions that will prevent a greater escalation of stress in employees.
We have never had to switch to remote work in such an emergency and on such a large scale. 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 going back to the office as a new challenge the consequences of which we cannot 100% predict. Let’s get ready for this event on all fronts, so that as few things as possible surprise us in the near future and that our company and our employees lose as little as possible. We hope the above tips will help you prepare your employees for going back to the office.