With the success of the Covid-19 vaccination programme comes a new challenge for employers: how do you manage the anxiety that some of your team may be experiencing about returning to the office? The move to hybrid or fully remote working required a significant change in mindset from employers and employees alike, and before the vaccine rollout it seemed that this would become the new normal. However, as time has moved on, more and more companies are considering a partial or full return to the office. Mental health is a key consideration in this area, so how do you ensure that every team member is comfortable with your proposed working arrangements, having potentially now become accustomed to working from home or a remote location some or all of the time?

It’s possible that some of your team may simply feel unsafe if they’re returning to work, especially given the rising infection rates, so there may be a need to reassure them as to their physical safety. They may, for example, be living with someone vulnerable and may therefore have been shielding, or they may even be vulnerable themselves. Given this possibility, it’s important to gain an understanding of every employee’s position regarding a return to work, rather than making a blanket decision. In addition, you might wish to explain that nothing is set in stone and that it’s a case of trying your plan and seeing how it works out.

Whether you routinely have company-wide or smaller team meetings, it’s important to remember that gathering in group situations may also be the source of anxiety for some team members. It’s worth considering the option of arranging more one-to-one meetings with potentially anxious staff members to reassure them and gain feedback, rather than assuming that everyone will be open to throwing themselves fully into the ‘old’ way of working.

Whatever their attitude towards the idea of returning to work – and the confidence they have towards being in a team or social environment – everyone now expects employers to provide a Covid-safe workplace. This means regular cleaning, the availability of hand sanitisers and the ability to distance if needed. Many businesses have adopted a hot-desk strategy rather than having allocated desks, and that’s where meticulous cleaning becomes a necessity. And if your staff feel more comfortable wearing a mask in the office, this should be allowed without question.

There’s also the possibility that new starters may have been working remotely and may have never actually met their colleagues, or even their boss, in person. Introducing them into the office environment needs to be handled sensitively as they may be feeling anxious about the first impression they’ll make when meeting face-to-face. In this situation, it may be worthwhile effectively to induct the new starters to help them feel at home in the office.

Anxiety can affect anyone at any level, so it’s important to talk to everyone involved. Remember that less senior and/or experienced members of staff may be more reluctant to speak up. Holding regular team meetings to give everyone a platform to express their opinions and contribute to creating a safe working environment for all can be invaluable. Without going to extremes, it’s also beneficial to check in with everyone individually on a regular basis to ensure that they’re comfortable with the new arrangements. In particular, any changes in attitude and behaviour should be noted, and then action should be taken to provide additional reassurance and support.

There may also be a percentage of the team who have adapted really well to working from home and are benefiting from a better work-life balance. This may create a reluctance to return to the office, so having some flexibility in the implementation of your return to work strategy will help. Some members of staff may have changed their childcare schedules, for example, or may be providing care for an elderly relative, so consider building in some capacity for these arrangements to be retained.

On the flipside, some members of staff may be anxious about being penalised if they show some reluctance to return to the office. You’ll most likely become aware of this when you conduct your one-to-one consultations, and it’s something that needs to be addressed quickly and sympathetically. In reality, a happy workforce is a more productive workforce, so avoid a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution at all costs. There may also be a sense in which reluctant returners are anxious about appearing ‘weak’, so they will need to be reassured that their opinions are both valid and valued.

Ultimately, reducing anxiety and managing a smooth return to the office – if that’s what your strategy is going to be – is all about effective communication. It’s about presenting the strategy and plan in the right way and about ensuring that every member of staff is equal in having their voice heard. Seniority is irrelevant here because everyone is human and can therefore react very differently to the same situation, and this needs to be taken into account. While you and many of your colleagues may be hugely enthusiastic about the big return, that enthusiasm may not be shared by everyone, and their opinions carry equal weight. And buy-in from all levels is crucial if you’re to avoid the impression of coercing anxious people into doing something they’re clearly not comfortable with.

Rosa dos Santos, owner of Exact Sourcing, manages a team of recruitment specialists and believes that communication and flexibility are key when it comes to managing anxiety. ‘Whatever the size of your business and however complex your management structure, when it comes to changing people’s working arrangements it’s vital to take everyone’s opinion into account,’ comments Rosa. ‘Anxiety takes many forms, and returning to work after a long period of hybrid or remote working can be daunting.

‘We’re encouraging clients who are embarking on this journey to begin with an extensive consultation – ideally on an anonymous one-to-one basis – so that they have a complete picture of where everyone stands. That way they can look to implement a strategy that respects people’s concerns and manages their anxiety. As well as ensuring that you have a contented workforce, it’ll also help to maintain – and even increase – productivity and improve staff retention, so it makes perfect business sense.’

Exact Sourcing is a recruitment agency in Cambridge and Newmarket, and we also serve Ely, Bury St Edmunds, Haverhill, Royston and Sawston. If you’re planning to return to the office, please feel free to contact us for an initial discussion.