Dealing with the psychological and social implications of returning to the office

Personal Effectiveness and Preparing for Change - © Performance Management Consultants

Working in the office has never been such a controversial topic. While most people agree on the value of in-person collaboration, the pandemic has made the subject of side-by-side work a topic very few interpret the same way. Notably, it has made people concerned for the health implications of working in close quarters, and caused social divisions on how best to manage the pandemic.

From intra-office hygiene practices, to working alongside the unvaccinated, and how to manage the symptoms of a common cold, returning to the office is going to be a complicated process. Especially after a long time with minimal social contact, working directly with people is bound to cause anxiety for some on your team. Finding a balance where your employees can feel as safe as possible while effective work can be carried out is going to be essential moving forward.

Luckily, the question of how to combat the psychological and stress-related impacts of returning to the office is a universal challenge, one being tackled by governments, companies and specialists all around the world. As getting back to business ramps up, a number of tactics – and potential problems to look out for – are surfacing.

Here’s what to consider as you look to return to the office with your team:

Anticipating the sources of anxiety

To lay a groundwork that will guide a safe and effective return to the office, you’ll need to anticipate where anxiety will come from. Of course, the first and foremost anxiety will be over getting sick. After nearly two years of hunkering down, many people have avoided the common cold, let alone coronavirus. The return of common sniffles or a light cough is certainly going to cause stress in both the person who shows symptoms and the people they work with.

But as reported in the New York Times, the disruption of established routine might be a major driver of anxiety. In the same way the sudden shift to all-at-home work was a shock to the system, returning to the office is going to disrupt carefully crafted work from home routines, which have offered a certain comfort during the darkest days of the pandemic. Recognizing a transition back might be bumpy for many of your team members is an important consideration.

Another source of anxiety is simply going to be the heightened social stimulation of a busy office after a long period of relative isolation. Especially for introverts on your team, the prospect of engaging face-to-face again, with all the small talk and casual camaraderie that comes with it, might be a daunting prospect. You’ll need to account for the change in social dynamics the pandemic will have caused.

Potential areas of friction

One change in your workplace environment you might need to brace for are never-before-seen areas of friction, caused by your team’s perspectives on the pandemic, responses to it, and ongoing best practices. As you’ve undoubtedly seen over the last couple years, people have wildly different opinions about how to handle Covid-19, some based on available facts, some only on personal feelings about the situation.

The most obvious cause of office friction will probably be about vaccines if some members of your team have chosen not to be vaccinated (and it is not a requirement for your job). This could cause anxiety and tension among vaccinated employees, and undoubtedly lead to some tough conversations.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review about the challenges Covid-induced anxiety will pose in the office, Joseph Grenny and Derek Cullimore have advice about starting these conversations:

“Your first task is not to solve the problem, it’s to create psychological safety. If others feel safe with you, they can engage in even-spirited disagreement in a way that’s productive.”

If some of your team members are causing disruption of the work environment due to their beliefs, you need to prepare to have a frank and serious talk with them. Even though the subject is difficult to approach, it’s your responsibility to make everyone participating feel safe and listened to. This increases the chances the results will be positive and productive.

While some members of your team might feel the dangers of the pandemic are overstated, another contingent may demand extreme safety measures be taken to ease their discomfort. For instance, even though surface transmission of Covid 19 is extremely rare, some people will demand rigorous sanitization of all shared surfaces. While basic hygiene practices are of course recommended, wiping down every surface frequently might be more disruptive than helpful.

Re-entry to work is bound to come with a few bumps. Every team is unique, and will have anxieties and individual concerns that may not map perfectly onto the standard playbook. Anticipating them will help you make the transmission as smooth as possible.

Strategies and best practices for returning to the office

Once you’ve considered the sources of anxiety and areas where friction might occur, you need to develop a strategy that takes into account the unique dynamic of your team. While not every scenario will be the same, here are a few best practices to get you started.

Establish routines: People have relied on their at-home routines for a sense of peace during rough times during the pandemic. Especially when so much was unknown, having something established and reliable like a morning walk around the block, or a café run in the afternoon was undoubtedly a comfort.

When returning to the office, you can offer a similar pattern of routines. Something as simple as a Monday morning catch-up, or an end-of-week wind down meeting where non-work experiences can be shared, is a great first step. You can use these times to also hear about how everyone is feeling about returning to the office, and redevelop in-person camaraderie that may have been missing from the work-from-home environments.

Offer flexibility: Everyone is going to have different feelings about returning to the office. While many will appreciate the dedicated workspace and face-to-face interaction, others would prefer to skip the commute, and use their home office. Allowing some work-from-home flexibility while people readjust, will allow time to get back into the swing of things.

Flexibility around work-from-home is also a good idea for when people get sick, even with the common cold. While your team member might feel well enough to work, even a case of the sniffles might make others uncomfortable. With the flexibility to stay home, you’ll be providing comfort in the office as well.

Provide resources: As part of making the office as safe-feeling as possible, providing all employees with the resources they need is essential. While this might include masks, wipes or other PPE, educational material is also a good idea. The Government of Canada has excellent web resources with specific health recommendations for each Province and Territory, as well as links to get free rapid Covid test kits.

You can also help by providing mental health resources to your employees. Not only will this allow them to get help if they need it, you’ll also demonstrate that you care about their wellness in the office.

A return to the office, but a new beginning

The pandemic paradigm shift may have permanently changed the relationship people have with their workplace. But there is still value in in-person collaboration, even for offices that can easily accommodate remote work. Finding ways to manage anxiety, reduce friction, and help your team feel safe and well will make this new beginning a successful one.

If you are facing anxiety about returning to the workplace, PMC’s Stress Management Skills course can help provide you with tools and techniques to overcome stress.

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