The ‘new normal’ may not be so new after all.
While some organisations let their office leases expire, we’ve had a number of conversations with clients who fully expect their offices to re-open. And the research shows this is going to be more popular with employees than might have been thought.
The big priority for employees will be supporting the mental health issues that have arisen and ensuring that when their people do return, they are engaged and productive. it’s even more important that we create an environment where employees feel safe, supported and included.
This article has some tips to help manage these issues. But first, let’s set the scene with those new research findings.
What do our employees actually want?
A YouGov poll of 1,039 UK workers in March, conducted on behalf of job board Indeed, found that 44% wanted their work life to return ‘largely’ to the way it was before, while nearly a third (31%) wanted it to return ‘exactly’ to the way it was before the first lockdown last year.
After a year of widespread Zoom and Teams calls and the isolation that many have experienced, perhaps this is not a surprise. Work brings community, purpose and friendship after all. Remote working served an immediate need and while flexibility should remain an option, many have missed the sense of belonging that comes within an office and the company of colleagues.
Lockdowns and mental health
It won’t come as a surprise to see that mental health was considered to be more affected by the latest lockdown, with 44% saying their mental health was worse than it was last spring. In particular, more women reported worsening mental heath than men – 50% compared to 38%.
Equally, 51% of furloughed workers, having spent months separated from their colleagues and anxious about the long-term future of their roles, reported that their mental health was worse than in the first lockdown.
On a more positive note, 41% of those polled expect their mental health to improve over the next three to six months as restrictions started to lift. What’s more, nearly 40% of furloughed workers said a return to work would improve their mental health.
So, what can employers do to manage the process, making the return to work as effective as possible?
Our tips for managing the return to office life
1. A different style of management
We are leading on this because how the organisation is led, and how line managers in turn treat their teams, really sets the tone for the whole process. Over the various lockdowns it is fair to say that the organisations that have managed best are those that dialled down the micro-management and upped the empathy shown to the challenges their people faced. Trusting them to work remotely was rewarded in many cases by delivering more than was expected. Although some employees will benefit from structure and guidance on their return, now is not the time to revert back to ‘command and control’.
You can also help by leading by example. Working from home has caused a lot of lines to be blurred between home life and work. Some liked it, others found it to be oppressive. As you welcome colleagues back, make the workplace a place to have fun and re-connect. Keep over-working at bay, check in with colleagues daily, encourage others to make the time to get to know each other again.
2. Recognising the impact on women's careers
As a business, Signature Recruitment champions equality and we’ve run events that bring wider awareness of issues such as the gender pay gap. So, when we saw reports that working women with children have taken on more of the homeschooling duties, and, as a consequence, their careers have been more adversely affected by the pandemic – our position is clear. Line managers need to be sensitive to this issue when integrating women back into the workplace and any support given should be a priority.
Those organisations that don’t manage this risk losing their top female talent to those organisations that do.
3. Innovation, not just productivity
Even allowing for teething problems, most organisations would agree that their people have done a great job working from home in challenging circumstances. But remaining productive is one thing – being innovative is another. Innovation is that thing that you can’t plan for, it just happens when people get together and create great ideas and solve problems. It doesn’t happen on a scheduled Zoom call – but it does when colleagues get together impromptu, and that will be happening as offices re-open.
So, think about ways to encourage safe break out areas and look opportunities for taking the time out to re-connect with colleagues face to face.
4. Not only on-boarding - but re-boarding
Many of your employees will have been away so long, returning to the office is going to feel like joining a new organisation. You may have an on-boarding process for new starters – but you’ll need to think wider than that as your people return. Everyone will feel like a new starter, especially furloughed workers who may have felt out of the loop.
So, think about communication – how will you re-emphasise what you are about as a business? Has that changed during the pandemic? What has made you stronger, where are you going now and where do your people – every single one of them – fit in? If you don’t have it worked out, you can’t expect them to feel as engaged and motivated as you’d want them to be.
5. Managing mental health and wellbeing
This is likely to be one of your biggest priorities. Many of us will have witnessed first hand some of the problems that have lead to increased stress levels since the start of the pandemic. Indeed, the charity Mental Health at Work found that nine out of 10 adults have been touched by some form of mental health issue in the past 12 months.
Hopefully, many organisations will have acted with empathy and understanding and encouraged a supportive culture towards mental health problems. It’s not only the responsible thing to do, it makes sound business sense and helps retain and attract new staff. According to Mind, 60% of workers say they’d feel more motivated and likely to recommend their firm to a friend if their employer took steps to support mental health.
Issues you’ll need to be aware of as your employees return include anxiety about travelling to work, personal safety, concerns about family members, bereavement, financial worries, anxiety surrounding roles and whether jobs still exist, possible tensions between furloughed workers and those that have remained at work, burnout caused by feelings of insecurity combined with home life challenges – and much more.