Manager’s guide to welcoming employees back to the office
It can be the call someone’s been enthusiastically anticipating, highly dreading, or somewhere in between. As vaccination efforts increase and social distancing regulations decrease, more and more employees get summoned back to on-site work. Whatever the emotional reaction to the news, one thing is virtually a given — workers and managers alike will feel a bit strange at first.
“It is tough to change your whole routine after almost two years of the pandemic and working from home,” says Colin Barker, CEO and CTO of FilterSmart. “For managers and leaders, it is going to be difficult to handle everything initially because now you not only have to reorient yourself but also help the staff with the problems they are facing.”
While managers should not expect everything to seamlessly fall back into place, they can take actions to maximize successful transitioning. Here are some strategies.
Hold a pre-return staff meeting
Just as parents often prepare their children for what to expect on their first day of school, managers can ease jitters by talking to employees before they come back. Conduct a video conference to break the ice and get everyone up to date.
Since safety will be top of mind for many returning workers, stress the organization’s commitment to the issue. Go over any measures instituted to promote a healthy environment, such as additional cleaning or a new office layout that allows greater social distancing. Address when and where people should wear masks, and go over the proper usage of lunchrooms and other shared areas.
Also, use this meeting as a chance to go over company policies. Telecommuters accustomed to casual dress may wonder if they can continue wearing such attire or keep that long beard. Likewise, the pandemic may have led the organization to change procedures for requesting time off, returning to the office after an illness, or working remotely. Draw new details to the staff’s attention.
Perhaps as important as conveying information is allowing team members to voice concerns and ask questions. Being heard and taken seriously promotes engagement, and airing grievances now may deter conflict when back on site.
Adjust expectations temporarily
While leaders may long for a return to business as usual, don’t assume that will occur simply by heading back to the physical office. People have been away for too long and have faced too many challenges to expect an immediate return to where things left off before the pandemic. Emotions likely will run high during the initial days back, and developing a rhythm will take time.
“My advice to other managers is to manage their expectations and refrain from making judgments until they have seen everything in action,” says Michael Knight, co-founder and marketing head of Incorporation Insight. “Allow members of your team some time to adjust to returning to the office if they are feeling down or slow to be productive. Be empathic and don’t expect them to adjust to the office right away. Find a happy medium between being empathic and ensuring that your team remains productive.”
Conduct regular check-ins
Most workers crave assurance that they are doing things “right” in this new environment. Individual feedback boosts confidence and leads to better performance.
Routinely carve out time for one-on-one chats. Not only will employees gain clarity about priorities and objectives, they’ll internalize the message that the company cares and wants them to succeed.
Having spent the past year or so away from colleagues, interaction may feel awkward at first. As a leader, though, making a pointed effort to mingle can reduce tensions and provide valuable information about the office’s vibe.
Rick Hoskins, founder of Filter King, notes that when he returned to the office he initially found himself managing from behind his desk as he would from home rather than navigating the floor. He advises other managers to avoid that trap.
“The colors will seem different, the air, the mood, the smell even! Just try not to get sucked into sitting behind your computer and managing from there. Get back into the habit of walking and circling the office, chatting, offering advice, and idea swapping,” Hoskins says.
Rebuild office culture
Members of your team may experience the same type of social discomfort. Even at companies where people used tools like Zoom and Slack to stay connected during remote operations, actual on-site encounters can feel unnatural.
“The most surprising thing about going back to the office is how silent everything seems,” says Anton Konopliov, CEO and founder of Palma Violets Loans. “Despite having a lot of work and being busy, our work environment has become quiet. Since social distancing is still heavily encouraged, there are fewer people in the office at once. The usual fun and pleasant environment has become toned down. Sometimes, it even feels like we’re in a movie about a pandemic, only this is real life. It’s a challenge that we continuously make an effort to solve. We try to have team meetings, and we sometimes incorporate fun icebreakers.”
Get staff involved in coming up with social yet safe activities. Further engage employees by rebuilding dedication to company objectives. Share a vision of the future, and encourage workers to brainstorm together on ways to reach goals.
The pandemic undoubtedly affected every person returning to your office, but not all in the same way. Situations run the gambit, from social distancing alone for months to multiple generations under the same roof day in and day out. Some likely faced a health crisis themselves or in their family, and perhaps even lost a loved one. Others may have experienced financial hardship from a spouse losing a job or worried daily about an adult child employed as an essential worker.
Recognize the mixture of feelings employees bring back with them. For every employee eager to gather the whole department together for a welcome back potluck there’s likely a counterpart who still insists on wearing a mask despite being fully vaccinated two months ago. Respect them all, and encourage others to do the same.
Cut yourself some slack, too. An event that turned the world upside down for more than a year cannot suddenly be put to rest, even by the greatest of managers.