How to Help Reluctant Employees Return to the Office


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Monday, July 19, 2021

As vaccination rates rise and the world starts opening up again, how can managers help employees who aren’t feeling positive about returning to the office?

Article 5 Minutes
How to Help Reluctant Employees Return to the Office

Many companies wouldn’t have survived the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic without the introduction of remote working, but getting these employees back into office spaces is often challenging.

Managers need to recognize the understandable anxiety and hesitation employees will have when returning to in-person work, as it will increase their risk of contracting COVID-19. They should also address specific concerns for individual employees and take their circumstances into account before making company-wide decisions.

Managers need to compromise with employees

The prevailing opinion is that managers should allow employees to work from home wherever possible, and hybrid models cater to this way of operating. In cases where employees can't reasonably work from home, the employer should ask them to attend the workplace only if COVID-19 risk reduction measures are in place. It should be disclosed with staff what measures have been implemented and how they’re upheld.

Making considerations for staff and anticipating compromise is essential.

Examples of this attitude include:

  • Employee A is unable to return to work because childcare arrangements that they previously relied on are no longer available due to the impact of coronavirus. In this case, their employer should explore their options, including adapting the employee's role, enabling them to work from home.
  • Employee B has health concerns that make them highly vulnerable to coronavirus. Their employer considers reasonable alternatives to requiring them to return to work.

In cases such as these, it may be appropriate to keep these employees on furlough for an extended period compared to other employees.

Employees should feel safe in all aspects within their workplace environment, physically, mentally, and financially. Transparently describing plans to make the workplace a safe place provides security that many staff members are currently missing.

Examples of plans to keep workplaces safer may include:

  • Symptom checks
  • The physical distancing of workspaces
  • Staggered schedules
  • Frequent testing
  • Personal protective equipment requirements
  • Enhanced cleaning
  • And many others dependent on the field

The workspace itself may not be the employees' source of worry. In many cases, an employee will have concerns surrounding public transport to get to work. The employer could discuss traveling at a quieter time by changing their start time to assist with this.

Management must comply with the duty of mutual trust, and in all cases, it must be evident that it’s fair and reasonable to expect the employee to use public transport. Each employee must be individually catered for; e.g., some employees may be prepared to use public transportation - this doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate to expect others to follow suit.

In addition to the wide range of physical measures that companies must take to operate today, employees must feel like they won't be reprimanded for expressing their needs or feeling uncertain about heading back into office spaces. By doing so, large amounts of uneasiness surrounding their physical return will be lifted.

A working example goes as follows: An employer is confident their request for their employee to attend work is reasonable. The employee disagrees and provides evidence as to why this isn’t the case. This requires management to consider their options if they cannot give a suitable resolution.

The first option is to ask the employee to agree to unpaid leave until the situation changes. If they don’t agree to this, the employer might decide to withhold their pay. The employer also has the option of taking disciplinary action leading to dismissal. As stated above, stances such as this aren’t recommended as they can make the whole body of staff uncomfortable.

So how should managers make employees more comfortable on their return?

1.   Build a space people want to come back to

Dark and dingy offices can be depressing at the best of times, but it doesn't have to be like that. Changes could include changes to the physical space, accommodating needs like standing desks to help employees feel more active. If a hybrid model is in play, there will be a rotation of staff in and out of the office. In this case, abandoning fixed desks and creating collaborative workspaces may be more inviting and productive for the team. This simple adaptation will help them better utilize the time spent in the office.

2.   Communicate willingly and openly

Teams have had to remain productive against a plethora of personal safety concerns, financial struggles, loss, and a wide variety of other issues. When you understand your teams' efforts, you can take steps to actively support their well-being and productivity. Strengthen personal relationships with staff, listen and cultivate meaningful interactions.

3.   Remain calm and resilient

Recognizing your fears and anxiety responses in high-stress situations will help you better understand and relate to your employees. Learn not to activate your stress response and regulate your emotions. This mental resilience will help you make clear decisions and strengthen relationships with employees in these turbulent times. Developing your focus, pragmatic optimism, and empathy will aid in response to future adverse situations while remaining grounded provides a calm and stable foundation on which your employees can rely. The new normal is uncertain and ever-changing, so it’s vital to reflect on your mental strategies and coping mechanisms.

All physical steps aside, the root of reluctant return embeds itself in uncertainty. This feeling of uncertainty can ripple its way through an organization and impact each member, so it’s of the utmost importance that the mental toll is reduced. Communication within the company and between staff is the only way to ease many employees' negative mindsets effectively.

This starts with leaders - think of the metaphor of a plane crash. You’re always told to put your oxygen mask on first, so why should this be different? Be confident in your vision and coping mechanisms first, and employees will trust you and follow suit. That’s how you can aid in their return to the office.

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