A company’s decision to return to the office should prioritize people, not policy.

The pandemic has forced us to adapt, and while it has been a confusing and challenging transition, it has given us a greater appreciation for values like safety, communication, and flexibility. Now that organizations are beginning to return to the office, leaders must be mindful of these values when prioritizing the physical and psychological well-being of their employees.

In 2021, the American Psychological Association reported that, regardless of vaccination status, nearly half of working Americans were uneasy about returning to in-person work. In an article for Harvard Business Review, executive advisor Constance Dierickx and marketing strategist Dorie Clark emphasize that, while it may appear black and white, there is not a hard line dividing those who want to go back to the office and those who don’t. Even those who want to return to in-person work still feel discomfort, and it is a leader’s job to prioritize their team’s well-being.

Dierichx and Clark outline the following things leaders can do to help their employees transition back into the office:

  1. Over-index on communicationThe term that has most defined the pandemic is “uncertain”–which is why employees may need what could seem like an excess of communication including detailed safety protocol, a breakdown of any organizational changes that have occurred while they were working from home, and a re-visiting of each employee’s role.While overseeing such a transition, consider offering sincere, individualized praise to remind your team members of their value. For example, if someone asks a clarifying question during a meeting, you might say, “Thanks for bringing that up. Others were probably wondering the same thing, and I’m glad we have this opportunity to get on the same page.” This can put team members at ease while encouraging others to ask questions as well.
  2. Allow people to express concernLeaders may want to organize a designated time for employees to voice their concerns regarding the transition back to the office. HBR notes that some leaders have expressed concern that such a meeting would end up resembling “group therapy.” But if leaders ask specific, open-ended questions, team members can speak openly while also in an organized, focused manner. For example, as a leader, you might say: “Would anyone like to speak on how we might use communication channels differently now that we’re back in the office?”
  3. Facilitate personal connectionsAn article in Psychology Today cites research by UCLA Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry Steve Cole which suggests that personal connections lead to a 50% increased chance of longevity. Social interactions can also decrease stress and anxiety levels, which makes them a crucial factor in the transition back to the office.Meanwhile, Gallup’s research on social connections suggests that having a “best friend” at work increases the effort employees put into their jobs. Of course, genuine friendship isn’t something that can be forced. However, organizing social events for your team creates opportunities for colleagues to develop friendships.
  4. Monitor and regulate your own emotionsIf return-to-office focuses on people rather than policy, that includes the care that you, as a leader, afford yourself. The Association for Psychological Science has done copious research that suggests leaders who experience emotional and physical exhaustion develop impaired thinking and decision-making. Not only is this harmful to the leader’s well-being, it also affects the moods of employees and overall performance of teams.Simple ways for leaders to monitor their emotions in the workplace include setting aside time for walks and other away-from-the-desk activities, blocking out periods of time where there are no meetings, and seeking out conversations with someone you do not normally engage with. You may even consider calling upon a leadership coach or advisor for additional support and reflection.

When it comes to transitioning back into the office, one thing we can count on is that we really can’t count on anything. And that’s okay! Uncertainty, while uncomfortable, offers the opportunity for learning and innovation. Dedicated, empathetic leaders can motivate and inspire their teams during that process.

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