Going back to the office?
How to manage your team's anxiety.


After a year of largely being confined to our four walls and being unable to go out and socialise freely, the journey out of lockdown seems like a long-awaited light at the end of a tunnel. Yet, the concept of returning to a physical work environment Is not necessarily a clear-cut point of celebration for many people. Even those most excited to go back to the work environment may feel anxiety about it, at some level.

Concerns around returning to the office after COVID-19 can be for various reasons. Not being sure one truly remembers how to socialise confidently or can handle being in a space where they are seen by others all day long. It may also be a fear of Covid-19 and how safe they may or may not feel for themselves and their loved ones, at the prospect of getting onto public transport. Or simply the reality of being in close proximity with others in a meeting room.

So, whilst employers develop various re-entry plans, schedules and policies for their staff to return to work in a safe environment, they have the dual task of taking into account their workforce’s emotional and psychological health, too.

Hence, when organisations plan what hybrid working will look like for their teams in 2021 and beyond, they must incorporate the anxiety that a lot of their employees will be feeling about going back to the office. Essentially, enhancing current practices, and bringing in external mental health programs to help them effectively tackle stress and uncertainty in-house.

This does not mean attempting to take the place of trained mental health practitioners but rather building greater internal awareness of sensitivity toward, and ability to address employee concerns.

There are tangible steps that leaders can take to manage their team’s return to work anxiety.

Transparency, Accuracy & Regularity In Information Sharing

Employees will want to hear from their CEO or leaders. Regular two-way, transparent communication is fundamental to building trust and letting employees know that their concerns are being heard and their safety is of importance.

Rigorous Implementation Of Safety Measures

Although there may be some debate regarding various public health measures, most people do want to ensure that they are safe at work, and by extension, aren’t putting their loved ones at risk.

As such, think about how your company can do the following:

  • Ensure work areas are regularly cleaned and extensively sanitised.
  • Gently advise employees who are sick to remain at home, for their own benefit and that of the team. Bringing in flexible sick leave policies will help workers feel able to take time off if they need to, without having to worry it will adversely affect their income.
  • Provide staff with personal protective equipment (PPE) so they’re able to protect themselves from health and safety risks. Which will also help them to feel more at ease about being in the work environment.
  • Have each employee screened in advance of their return to the office.

Training Leaders and Staff to Provide Support

The responsibility will be on leaders and managers to cultivate processes that enable a smooth re-entry into the work environment for employees. People managers, in particular, must be equipped to look after their employees’ well-being. This could mean them learning how to identify when their staff may be experiencing emotional distress – even the individuals verbalising it.

With that in mind, they will need to understand the importance of scheduling check-ins with their staff more regularly. Furthermore, they’ll require the necessary capabilities to help employees understand the things within their control that they can take action on, and those that aren’t.

However, it isn’t solely leaders and managers who will require training to aid them in being a source of support, but also, employees. By employees forming their own networks – both formal and informal ones – teams can begin the process of reconnecting. Something that has long been missing in quarantine and social distancing and will require intentional building from all parties.

These networks ultimately equip people with insights and behaviours that will form coping mechanisms and support systems. Such insights may involve training on resilience, developing emotional intelligence, and leading/operating in hybrid teams.

Creating A Culture of Flexibility

The past year has demonstrated that large workforces in certain industries can successfully work from home. Despite this, some employees may feel hesitant to voice the fact they don’t wish to return to the pre-Covid working conditions, for fear it will call their levels of commitment into question.

However, it’s now been proven that remote working can be useful – and on a variety of schedules suited to workers’ needs. Indeed, a greater work-life balance has become a considerable part of the discussion around employee well-being.

Employers can mitigate employees’ worries regarding scheduling and gain clarity on their approach to organisational flexibility, by asking the following questions.

  • Is it time to move your organisation to a largely remote model?
  • If this is not a viable solution, how will you decide the degree to which various groups of employees can choose when to return to the workplace?
  • What measures do you need to put in place to cultivate a truly hybrid workforce?
  • How will you make sure your diversity and inclusion efforts are not unintentionally impacted, taking into account individuals working offsite?
  • Which measures will you take to protect older or more vulnerable employees, and individuals who fall into groups that have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19?

Taking these steps will have a significantly positive, supportive and productive impact on your employees’ experiences of returning to work, and their commitment to your organisation in the longer term.

For more information on preparing your employees for returning to work and hybrid working see our blogs.