Bringing Your Employees Back into the Office after COVID

Many of us didn’t think twice about working in the office before early 2020. We arrived, interacted with our colleagues, completed our tasks, attended meetings and went home. It was just how life was. But it’s not how life is now.

And with more and more plans in place to pull employees back into physical offices, unease for some is through the roof. Can you relate? Managers and employees alike may feel psychologically distant from one another and on edge. Employees may feel unsure about whether or not they still hold the same worth in the eyes of their organization.

As a leader, you should be aware of this and address it. The following information may surprise you:

According to Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey conducted in March 2021, among 2,000 employed adults from the United States and Canada they surveyed, 26% of those workers planned to leave their employers after the pandemic mainly because they’re concerned with their career advancement: They’re not sure they’re a valuable contributor anymore and that their company will provide opportunities to grow and advance.

Are you at risk of losing anyone for these reasons? How do you know?

Also, many employees are also still grappling with various stressors, including balancing responsibilities at work and home, which were quickly mashed together while many worked remotely.  And for those who have made those adjustments and prefer their current setup, they don’t know if similar options will be on the table in the future.

So what’s a leader to do? The answer: Pay attention to employees’ emotional needs and unite them behind a common purpose.

In my own research, we used data found mostly in the United States and China when COVID-19 cases were surging. We found that “servant” leadership — which exemplifies behaviors such as paying attention to employees’ emotional suffering, empowering them and guiding them to serve their communities — helps reduce anxiety and increase job engagement.

Stop for a moment. How can you do that for your employees? Jot down some quick notes, but don’t go anywhere. We need explore a bit more about why this is so important.

When leaders are servant-oriented, they’re more likely to acknowledge their own worries and uncertainties. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, everything’s under control,’ they say ‘I feel the same; I’m anxious too but let’s work through it together.’

When leadership cares about their employees’ well-being, the employees are more likely to feel they are valuable contributors, and they’re more willing to invest themselves in their work roles.

Leaders also can provide additional resources, autonomy and transition time for their employees to navigate the situation. This will increase a sense of control, and that can help reduce anxiety, which can have a positive impact on employees’ job engagement and performance.

Another tip for leaders: Help your employees realize their anxiety is normal.  Stephen Covey’s 90/10 principal is helpful: He said 10% of life is what happens to you and 90% is decided by how you react. Employees need to have confidence they can make as valuable a contribution to their workplace as they did before the pandemic. And, as a leader, you need to help them understand that.

But don’t make all solutions centered around you. Tell employees they’re free to seek out support from co-workers. Research shows when employees have emotional support and resources from co-workers, they’re more likely to be engaged at work.

As a leader, you should try to be as flexible as possible with your employees as they make their physical return to work; it will give employees that sense of control and autonomy. But it’s important for businesses to evaluate their own cases individually. You need to evaluate your organization’s long-term survival while considering the well-being of employees.

Perhaps reach out to their employees to consider their specific lives and their emotional situations. Conduct an anonymous survey to ask employees whether they’re willing to come back completely or prefer remote work or a hybrid situation.

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 52% of Americans would choose to work from home permanently given the option. So it’s important to know what employees want and evaluate what will make their business work.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But perhaps these ideas can help.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.