When COVID first began and organizations shifted to telework, many employees and leaders likely assumed this would be temporary. Now, well over a year after COVID began, conversations regarding return to work have started. Despite these plans, we’re likely to see some continuation of remote work. In uncertain times, the focus of leadership should be on supporting employees as they return to the office, work remotely, or adjust to a hybrid environment. By implementing the following tips, leaders can help employees feel comfortable and supported in how they choose to navigate this workplace transformation as an office-based, remote, or hybrid team member.
Develop and communicate an agile return-to-work plan that is flexible.
If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the past year, it’s the value that flexibility offers. And, especially in the continuous wake of uncertainty that the pandemic has left, it is becoming an increasingly important and necessary trait for leaders to inhabit. Employees rely on leadership that is not only steadfast, but also adaptable. No matter how well prepared we are for the future, we will always be faced with unanticipated change and challenges that will disrupt what we understand as the norm. As organizations still grapple with what the return to the physical workplace might look like, a necessary characteristic of their plans must be flexibility. This approach to planning will make employees feel as though they are not trapped within a plan that will remain in place despite changing circumstances, and in turn can instill trust and confidence in leadership. Here are a few elements to consider when developing a plan to transition back to the office to help ensure flexibility:
- Create options for employees: This not only creates the flexibility of choice, but it also instills a feeling of ownership among employees—something many might need right now in a time when other aspects of life may feel out of their control. Involving employee input and opinion in the planning process communicates that leadership genuinely cares about what’s best for their employees. Use the choices that employees make to help continuously inform and evolve your strategy for the transition back, to ensure that you are customizing a plan that balances both employee and company needs.
- Be transparent about plans and have open communication with staff: Sometimes, an excess of flexibility can appear as being underprepared for the future, and it’s important for leadership to provide stability to employees. In communications about the return to work, strike a balance between providing clear guidance and conveying that the transition back will be flexible and evolving to ensure the safety of staff. Be transparent at every step in the process of planning, so employees know what to expect and can plan their personal lives accordingly. In addition to providing options from which employees can choose, create forums and spaces where employees can provide continuous feedback on how they are feeling about the return to work. Include this feedback in communications, so employees feel tapped into the opinions of their colleagues and see that their inputs are actually being examined and considered in planning the return to work. Having open communication will show staff that the planning process is open for adaptation, and not something that is closed off and set in stone.
- Ensure there is no stigma attached to the decision to return, or not return, to the physical workspace: Having an environment that is flexible and provides freedom of choice is only feasible if employees actually feel like they can make a decision in their best interest without judgement or eventual consequences. The personal safety and mental health issues that have arisen during the pandemic cross the boundary between personal and professional, and because of this, conversations around comfort levels and preferences may feel a little more personal than people are used to discussing in the workplace. Simply providing the option to continue working from home (when possible) may not be enough on its own to communicate that it is actually okay to choose the option to stay at home. The stigma around remote work still persists, despite over a year of working from home, so it is up to management to help quell employee fears of the repercussions of staying home. The benefits of communicating to staff that it is acceptable to continue remote work is twofold: it shows that management cares about employees’ safety and trusts them to complete their work to the same degree they would in person.
Support employees through Employee Assistance Program (EAP) resources.
- Recognize that the shift to remote work was not just a change in work location, but a change in a way of life: Remote work was precipitated by a global health pandemic, which also disrupted the daily routines of employees. It drastically changed how people interacted with others and balanced home and work responsibilities. These changes were also accompanied by varying levels of uncertainty, anxiety, and bereavement. According to a study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of U.S. adults reported having mental health issues since COVID-19 began. Consider the emotional impact of transitioning back to the workplace, in addition to the logistics of reopening and maintaining physical safety. Key questions for consideration may include:
- Will the transition, and the new policies that are still in flux, create change fatigue that impact employee productivity?
- What resources do employees need to feel safe and comfortable in the office or while on business travel?
- What support do employees need to balance work/life responsibilities?
- Conduct a workplace mental health assessment: An assessment can help leaders understand the mental health issues employees are facing. This provides the insight needed to determine how best to support employees. Consider using an external firm to collect data and emphasize the anonymity of the survey to encourage participation. Determine the frequency and timing of the survey so that it does not overburden staff members.
- Evaluate your EAP: Employee assistance programs are important resources for helping employees manage personal issues that may impact their job performance. Based on the results of the workplace mental health assessment, evaluate if the current EAP provides the appropriate services needed to meet employee needs. Also, take a close look at both the availability and effectiveness of those services. Review metrics collected by the EAP provider to determine if and which services are being utilized, and how satisfied employee are with the quality of the service professionals they were referred to. Perhaps it’s time to consider a vendor who provides services and experiences that better reflect the needs of the workforce.
- Identify and highlight other support services and the EAP in standalone, strategic communications: In addition to the EAP, determine other resources the organization can offer to address trends identified in the workplace mental health assessment. Can the organization sponsor wellness workshops, provide mental health maintenance tip sheets, or offer alternative work schedules to maintain work/life balance? Starbucks, for example, now offers employees 20 free therapy sessions each year. This is significant, given that the most EAPs offer 3 – 6 complementary therapy sessions. Often, employee support resources appear at the bottom of HR communications as a phone number for EAP. Craft specific communications geared towards promoting the benefits of the EAP and other company resources. Encourage employees’ participation before and after returning to the office.
Create a work environment where ALL employees – office-based, remote, and hybrid – feel involved and included.
- Place an intentional focus on relationships and building trust among staff: Making time for informal communication in a hybrid environment will be essential to building and maintaining strong, trusting relationships among employees. When teams are rooted in trust, they are able to communicate and collaborate more effectively and more easily work together toward a single purpose or goal. A recent McKinsey survey found that organizations that have placed an emphasis on keeping employees connected (e.g., creating opportunities to discuss projects, share ideas, network, mentor) during the pandemic have seen increased productivity among their teams. Replicating this in a hybrid environment is key. Developing the space for these interactions to take place and creating opportunities for staff – regardless of their location – to remain connected and have causal conversations will become really critical.
- Thoughtfully manage hybrid meetings and interactions: Prior to the pandemic, remote employees may have found it difficult to participate in organizational meetings and calls when the majority of staff were physically present in the same room. Now that many organizations are considering work environments where this will be the norm (i.e., participants will include a mix of onsite employees with remote staff), it will become even more critical to create an equal playing field where all participants feel like they are being heard, their opinion is valued, and they are able to contribute to the discussion despite their location. This will also reiterate to remote employees that they can still be involved in key decisions and contribute to an organization’s success even when they are not in-person. That being said, make sure to consistently acknowledge remote employees during hybrid meetings. Providing multiple ways for people to voice their opinion not only allows participants to contribute via the method they feel most comfortable but increases the chances that everyone will have an opportunity to participate and no one is excluded from the conversation. Calling on team members directly and facilitating a round robin discussion are all ways to ensure everyone can contribute. For additional tips on effective virtual meetings, check out our blog Eight Strategies for Facilitating Effective Virtual Meetings.
- Solicit continuous feedback from the workforce: Making a successful transition to a hybrid work environment isn’t going to happen overnight. It will likely take some experimentation, and some trial and error in order to figure out what works for an organization and its employees. Given the iterative nature of this process, it is important to continually check-in with employees to find out what’s working well and what’s not. Asking questions like “How can we best work together in this hybrid environment?”, “What are our preferred communication methods?”, and “What support and resources do employees need to be successful?” can provide valuable insight into staff perspectives and help shape (or reshape) policies and processes moving forward.
What are some strategies your organization is using to support its employees while navigating the evolving workplace landscape? Share with us on LinkedIn!
Stephanie Branch joined FMP in January 2021 as a Senior Consultant. She is currently working on a variety of initiatives, including eLearning development, strategic communications, and stakeholder engagement. Stephanie enjoys traveling, spending time with her family, and attending art shows and poetry events.
Jessica McCrerey is an Engagement Manager in the Learning and Development Center of Excellence at FMP. Jessica is from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and enjoys working out, cooking, and spending time with family and friends.
Emma Wright joined FMP in November 2020. She is a Consultant in the Learning and Development Center of Excellence and is the FMP Blog Coordinator. She hails from Alexandria, Virginia, and you can often find her crafting, out at a concert, or eating at her favorite DC restaurants.