Navigating Return to Office

For over a year, I’ve been writing about how to adapt to remote work and navigate the pandemic reality. Now, though, some companies are talking about a return to the office. That’s got people feeling a range of intense emotions. In this blog, I’m writing for both leaders and employees. Hopefully, their collaboration on the return to office issue can lead to fruitful conversation and successful solutions.

The Backdrop

About 6 months ago, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) conducted a survey of over 1,000 employees. They asked many questions to assess how COVID has changed the landscape for the modern workforce. They also sought to make recommendations for how employers should approach a return to office. The findings indicate that burnout is still challenging much of the workforce. That might get better by returning to regular work routines. However, burnout could also get aggravated by the stress many are feeling about returning to in-person work. Also of note is the finding that many employees have moved away from their physical workplace during COVID. Moreover, younger employees are indicating that they’d prioritize the ability to work remotely over a higher salary. All of this points to an inconvenient conclusion for organizations: returning employees to the office won’t be easy.

It’s worth recognizing that I wrote a blog about being “Zoomed out” a full year ago. Some people are definitely eager to get back to in-person interaction. However, plenty of employees are more concerned about potentially getting sick, as this article points out. Anxiety about health has been exacerbated during the pandemic. This has to leave organizations wondering how they’ll pull off a successful return to office.

So Why Bother With a Return?

Considering all these challenges, it may seem surprising that many employers are moving forward with return to office plans. However, they have their own motivations, as explained here. Employers want to promote collaboration and communication between their employees. As I wrote about earlier, both collaboration and communication have been challenged by remote  work.

In addition, this Forbes article lists some reasons why a return to the office could serve employees. For those who have their sights set on a promotion, being in the office with your boss might help your work get noticed. On the flip side, new employees may be anxious to connect with coworkers. Being in person might even help them find a mentor at work. Finally, everyone is looking to network, and that’s been hard in the remote work world.

What You Can Do About It

This article on preparing for a return shares useful tips to gear up for that transition. You can use visualization to lower anxiety about certain scenarios. Envisioning yourself walking through those situations can help you feel more confident about them. Also in preparation for a return to commuting, re-establish a regular sleep schedule. I’ve written about the importance of sleep for productivity. It can’t be overstated. Another strategy to help ease you back into working in the office is redecorating. Your old desk might feel foreign to you. After all, you haven’t been there in over 18 months! Be sure to upgrade photos and whatever else is on your desk to reflect the person you are now. Finally, find support. Whether it’s family members, friends, or a trained mental health professional, be sure you can talk to someone. This is a big transition.

Besides the other concerns of returning to in-person workdays, you might be worried about tough conversations. These could come up with regard to vaccination policies, remote work policies, or other issues. This HBR article gives you some steps to take in advance. First off, you’ll want to know your own priorities in advance. What’s most important to you? Know that it may not be possible to achieve all your goals, but you can advocate for the most important one. Second, start working on a backup plan. Consider what would happen if the conversation didn’t go well. Would you potentially need a new job? It won’t hurt to brush up your resume and start looking at what’s available now. Lastly, plan to start any tough conversation by affirming your respect for the other party’s values. This will give you your best shot at a respectful, productive exchange.

The Need for Visionary Leadership

As this Forbes article describes in no uncertain terms, we’re not returning to the old normal. Instead, a return to office will definitely mean constructing a new normal together. That’s why leaders will need to be especially flexible, resourceful, and empathic to navigate this transition.

If you’re a leader, that directive might feel vague and almost impossible to tackle. Fortunately, plenty of articles online have suggested strategies for leading organizations and teams successfully in these times. For starters, this article encourages leaders to survey their employees. Ask how they’re feeling about returning to the office. This can help you get a pulse on the needs of your workforce. This article on the importance of flexibility emphasizes the emotional impact a return to the office might make. Demonstrating empathy and expressing your understanding of workers’ challenges will be critical. You can also take concrete steps to relieve their stresses, such as offering support with child care. It might not feel easy, but working to balance the needs of your organization with employees’ needs is the task at hand.

One more note on responding to employees’ health anxiety! As this article suggests, leaders will be appreciated for creating and sharing clear policies for the new normal. This means setting clear expectations for the future of remote work, as well as outlining steps the workplace will take to mitigate the spread of COVID. Let employees know that you’re thinking of them and their needs, even before they’ve returned.

The Ongoing Role of Technology

The remote work environment has, by nature, necessitated the introduction of new technologies. Apps like Pyrus have become the norm for team communication and collaboration. Leaders and employees alike might be wondering whether software like that is about to get the boot. The answer? A resounding no! As I’ve just explained, not all employees are going to be ready right away to return to the office. To keep them connected with colleagues who do come back, tools like Pyrus will stay crucial. Not to mention, when employees have to stay home due to quarantine requirements, Pyrus (and similar tools) will give them the opportunity to stay looped in with the team.

I guess what I’m saying is that change is certainly coming… but don’t expect it to hit everything all at once! I hope this article has been helpful for you as we prepare for return to office. Best of luck implementing these suggestions to reduce anxiety and navigate the transition successfully.