What managers need to keep in mind when returning to the workplace

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

As restrictions lift and life slowly eases back to normal, you may be commencing your return to office preparations. During this transition, the health, safety, and mental wellbeing of your employees is paramount.

To help you on your journey, here are a few tips and strategies to ensure that the road to recovery is inclusive and that mental wellbeing is at the forefront.

Understand that your staff will be stressed

While the initial shock of retreating from our busy lives might have been frightening, the reverse culture shock of attempting to return to normal can be completely overwhelming. For many, it will be difficult to acclimatise back to our old lives and working environments, and this sudden onset of anxiety and fear can be very stressful.

As the world has changed, so have we. Some people may emerge from the confines of lockdown as a completely different person. This makes adjusting increasingly difficult, and many will consider whether they want to even adjust back.

Your role is to make your staff feel safe and comfortable. Be empathetic of their stress, don’t aggravate it, and give them time to figure out who they are now and the world they live in.

Some people won’t want to return yet, and that’s okay

Inside a close-to-empty train car. The people inside wear masks.
Public transport can be a scary thought when considering a return to work. Be considerate of you staff’s transport options.

Not everyone will be ready to return to work or the office. Many might be fearful of coming back into contact with others or using public transport again. Employers need to be patient and understand that not everyone will want to risk travelling to work or sharing desks and workspaces with colleagues.

If some of your staff are not ready to return yet, you should respect their wishes and bear in mind that this decision has huge implications on a person’s wellbeing.

Instead, focus on what needs to be done today to protect their health and mental health. Everyone moves and adjusts at their own pace – remember that your pace may be faster (or slower) than others.

Employ a transition period

It might take a little while for everyone to get back into the swing of things. Employing a transition period makes it easier for everyone to return to work. Have empathy for your employees and ease them gently and gradually back into work. Consider some of the following flexible work options:

  • Plan a staggered reintroduction to the office. This will help manage employee numbers and risk
  • Set up a rotating group of employees to reduce the amount of people in the office at once
  • Keep some form of remote working available to avoid seesawing back and forth as restrictions fluctuate. Keeping both options in operation will avoid unnecessary stress and disruption.
  • Alter start and end hours so not everyone is arriving to work at the same time and crowding the lifts and entryways.

Don’t expect the usual levels of productivity

Don’t expect to return to work, snap your fingers, and pick up where you left off. Going back to the workplace will seem weird.

For some of us, months might have passed since we’ve interacted face-to-face with people outside of our home.

Just as it took time to adjust to working-from-home, it will take time to adjust to working in an office or alongside other people again.

Some people will be more affected by the return to work than others, and that will show in their productivity levels. New routines must be built again, and staff may need more breaks as they suddenly find the 9 to 5 slog unusually exhausting.

People with autism might particularly struggle to cope with the change. Be supportive and understanding of their needs during this time. Let them know that you don’t expect anyone to be working at their usual pace – let’s all work together in a way that’s best for the team.

EPIC student, Brayden at work at IKEA
Brayden is on the autism spectrum, and establishing a sense of routine was key to him finding his footing at IKEA. Some people with autism have difficulty adjusting to sudden changes in workplace arrangements, so it’s important that employers accommodate this and help create new routines.

Be accommodating of people with disability and health conditions

While many people with disability will be okay and happy to return to work, others with compromised immune systems might not be able to leave their home for the foreseeable future, which is a daunting thought to process.

Employers need to be accommodating and build inclusive and cohesive teams that prioritise what is best for each employee. Whether that’s at home or in the office, work on strategies in consultation with each individual that will make their work accessible, stable, and safe.

Your staff’s mental health comes first

Self-isolation and quarantine may have affected the mental health of your employees. Look out for signs that your staff may be struggling: fear, anger, stress, sadness, irritability, difficulty sleeping, or difficulty concentrating. Prepare mental health resources so that they are available and ready to help when needed.

Employers need to lead the path in destigmatising mental health conditions by creating an environment where all employees feel safe to put their hand up if they’re having some problems. For some people, this may mean fast tracking their return to work. For others, it could mean slowing it down.

Even when everyone has returned to work and routine is back to normal, the leftover effects of isolation could still be lingering. It’s important that you keep monitoring all your employees (and yourself) – good mental health comes first.

DDH Graham employees sit with EPIC staff member at work.
A mentally healthy workplace is good for everyone. Positive environments are critical to both employee and organisational resilience.

Expect more sick days

Winter is coming, and we’re in for a long one. On the bright side, more people than ever before had the flu shot. On the flip side, our definition of sick has dramatically shifted in the past few months.

Even though it might only be a runny nose or an itchy throat, your staff should not be coming to work. For parents and carers, they will also need to take extra days off to care for their children who may not be able to attend school or day-care if they have a runny nose.

This means that more sick days will be needed, and you should let your staff know that this is okay.

If their normal functioning or wellbeing is not compromised, consider creating a plan to allows your staff to work from home on these days. This will ensure that everyone has enough sick days for when they really need it, and will help keep the whole team productive.

Do you really need to return to work, or can you continue to work from home?

We’re over the bend of this pandemic, but we’re not at the end. As a manager or employer, it is your duty to limit the amount of risk placed on your staff. Ask yourself, does my workforce really need to return to the office? Or is it perfectly fine for them to stay home for another month?

After this widespread forced trial of working from home, many businesses have seen the benefits and are offering permanent work-from-home options for their staff.

Particularly, many people with disability have finally been granted the opportunity to work in a flexible home environment that is supportive of their needs. Society has suddenly catapulted us into a world that values accessibility and virtual connections, and understandably some people with disability will not want to go back to the way it was before (if this is you or your employee, consider reasonable adjustments).

Employers who develop trust, responsiveness, and openness with their employees will ensure that their return to work is a successful one. Taking these considerations into account will help ease the transition from home to a new normal back at work.

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