What to Do About “Back to the Office” Jitters

The majority of professionals in a recent survey said that they were anxious about returning to the office after working remotely during the pandemic. What can managers and employees do to manage the transition? Employees need guidance and flexibility to decrease their anxiety if they decide to return to the office. Managers can provide regular updates about precautions they are taking and be transparent about the number of Covid-19 infections in the building. Providing a safe environment and allowing employees to feel heard can substantially decrease anxiety. Employees will expect compassion and flexibility from their bosses during this challenging time.

As more and more companies bring their people back to the office, managers face the challenge of ensuring that their employees feel safe and comfortable. Although all workers have experienced the Covid-19 pandemic, they haven’t all experienced it in the same way. Employees have been going through a wide range of anxiety and suffering, leading to a variety of attitudes toward the pandemic and differences in the precautions people are willing to take to protect themselves and others. What can managers and employees do to manage the transition?

Managers

Managers need to accept that their employees may have changed during the pandemic. Although most professionals (55.2%) in one comprehensive survey were anxious about returning to the office, attitudes differed among different age groups. Sixty percent of workers said they would consider leaving their jobs if they could not work from home or were forced to work in the office more than they wanted to. However, a sizable number of 18-to-24-year-olds — 26% — said they might quit if managers cancelled work-related social events. Younger workers tend to gain the most from personal connections at work, whereas older workers who have been employed longer require less supervision and are more at ease with their position in the workplace. Older workers also have more to be nervous about if they’re exposed to Covid-19.

Given such differences, an all-purpose office policy won’t work for everyone. When employees are anxious, it is less likely that they feel safe speaking up about their concerns. Anonymous surveys can help to assess how workers are feeling but some employers are going further to put in place a visual system that allows workers to indicate their level of comfort with physical contact without saying a word. The system involves the use of color-coded wristbands or lanyards. Red means the person wants others to keep their distance and allow for ample personal space; yellow indicates they prefer using fist bumps and elbows to greet colleagues; while green signals that the person is comfortable with hugs and handshakes. The workers can switch colors anytime they want, giving them the flexibility to adjust their preferences according to different circumstances and their changing attitudes. Employers could also have the option to take away the green bands if Covid-19 cases are on the rise. By enabling people to identify each other’s comfort level quickly, this visual scheme helps to create a welcoming office environment where colleagues can express their personal preferences and be mindful of others’ safety concerns. Some workers may be happy to never shake hands or bump fists again, and such a scheme can help create this new reality.

Workers need guidance and flexibility to decrease their anxiety if they decide to return to the office. Managers can also provide regular updates about precautions they are taking and be transparent about the number of Covid-19 infections in the building. Providing a safe environment and allowing employees to feel heard can substantially decrease anxiety. Employees will expect compassion and flexibility from their bosses during this challenging time.

Employees

Employees can also take some concrete steps themselves to transition back to in-person work. The first is to monitor your anxiety. Figure out how you actually feel about returning to the office. Do you feel anxiety, nervousness, disappointment, anger, fear, or frustration? Naming the inner dynamic can help you regulate your emotional experience. Second, recognize when your energy is depleted. New procedures and health protocols all eat up mental energy, and being anxious subtracts further from our limited supply. Even if you prefer to prioritize work and to take care of others, now is the time to shift the framework around your own self-care. We can no longer push ourselves to the limit in the name of productivity. Recognize that you are human, irreplaceable, and worthy of rest.

A three-step framework can help reduce your anxiety when it starts to rise. Think about and write down:

  1. What you can control: For example, you decide what to eat or drink, when to exercise, and when to rest more.
  2. What you can influence: For example, you can ask your coworkers to keep a distance or wear masks at your meetings. You can’t eliminate all risk, but you might be able to mitigate it to feel more comfortable.
  3. What is outside your control: For example, you cannot control whether the weather will stay dry during an outside meeting or whether your train will run on time. You can put in place contingencies if needed, but recognize your limits so you can save your energy for items you can control or influence. Try to avoid spending too much mental energy on any items in this category.

Both employees and managers can acknowledge their anxiety as well as some wonderful positives about the return to in-person work. After more than a year of social isolation and confinement in our homes, the social aspect of interacting with colleagues can greatly benefit the mental health and motivation of many, and reinforce a sense of purpose and emotional connection to work. Managers should strive to bring humor and joy to their employees, recognizing the breadth of experiences and loss people have endured over the last 18 months. With proper planning and precautions, as well as patience and flexibility, many can look forward to having the chance to reconnect with their colleagues in a safe and considerate way.

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