Safeguarding employee mental health when planning a return to the office

Business Insights

With lockdown restrictions set to ease across the UK, some businesses are considering reopening their offices to welcoming back employees in a COVID–secure manner.

Understandably, while some employees are excited for a return to the office, others may feel anxious and apprehensive. Many are still juggling childcare and other situations brought about by the pandemic and others appreciate the flexibility of working from home.

So, what can companies do between now and then to ensure that their team members are as prepared as possible to return to work?

Comprehensive communication between management and team members is of the utmost importance during the run-up to the return to the office. Leaders need to keep team members informed of all return to work developments – big or small – and what steps are being taken to ensure that all employees will be kept safe.

Holding 1-1 sessions with team members provides an opportunity to openly air any concerns and ask questions about coming back to the workplace, related to each individual’s circumstances. Having open, clear communication with employees strengthens trust in the company and trust in decision makers having a sound return to work plan.

Management tools such as The Change Curve model can support the forthcoming transition back to the office. By working through the uncertainty of the past year and acknowledging the concerns that the next stage may bring, companies and their employees can begin to make sense of these changes and, ultimately, adapt to them and emerge stronger on the other side.

Mental health understanding and compassion

For many, home working is the new normal and with it comes the normalisation of decreased social interaction and busy environments. It’s understandable that some may experience social anxiety when thinking about returning to the hustle and bustle of the office and having continuous social interaction throughout the day. Employees will also have become used to having their own space, which may have been customised to suit their own needs and preferences.

Companies should expect a phased return to work as employees transition back into an office environment and will need to reassure employees that they can take their time getting back into a routine. In the same way that many of us were exhausted by the transition to Zoom a year ago, it may take a while to adjust to working in a shared workspace again. Especially if employees have less personal space, less control over the environment and potentially more distractions.

Organisations need to prioritise wellbeing in the workplace during this settling-in period and be sure to signpost mental health resources to help employees manage any anxiety. Services and helplines such Mind, Samaritans, CALM, and Shout, as well as internal mental health first aiders can be invaluable.

Individual circumstances regarding personal situations, such as employees who live with shielding family members or who are still juggling childcare, may cause further anxiety when returning to the office. If a team member raises a concern, be mindful and compassionate to their circumstances and work out a schedule and working arrangement that suits them until their circumstances change. This maintains their trust in and loyalty to the company.

The hybrid workspace – new workplace practices and patterns

Many businesses have successfully transitioned to working from home during the pandemic. For these organisations, it is well worth considering a hybrid or flexible working model for employees as part of the post-pandemic return. Flexible workers report higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment to their organisations than their non-flexible counterparts and research also shows that most people want to continue working from home, at least some of the time or on a flexible basis. Leaders should take this into consideration when establishing a new hybrid workplace practice.

Turning your office into an innovative, creative space and updating your workplace technology not only creates the safest, most hygienic space possible but empowers your employees to work collaboratively, wherever they’re based. However, this updated workspace dynamic should not come at the expense of individual, focused work, but support all team members in however they’d like to work.

We’ve all learnt valuable lessons from Covid-19. Companies who previously thought that working from home led to a decrease in productivity have been pleasantly surprised by its success. Many employees have been trusted to carry out their work without oversight and require little micro-management. These practices should be brought into the workplace, and can result in time saved for all team members and managers, as there is no longer a need for constant monitoring.

In the largest benchmark of employee workplace experience, Leesman found that 76% of workplaces did not offer an outstanding experience. If organisations want people to come back to the office, the experience has to be great.

Average just won’t do in a post-pandemic world. Take a user-centric approach to define the future of your workplace. The best workplaces are aligned to the needs of users, ensuring an outstanding experience for all.

We recognise that returning to work will bring both happiness and apprehension to team members who have been working from home.

It is important to listen to any concerns to help ease anxiety and to keep them informed at every step of the way. If you’d like to find out more about how Interaction can support your return-to-work strategy, get in touch.

Find out more about what the research shows about working from home, download our report here.