As companies start thinking about the end of COVID-19 restrictions and going back to the office, the inevitable question is: how to go about it safely?
Lots of thought is being put into the physical side of things, with offices considering hygiene, occupancy, and distancing requirements. But equal thought needs to go into protecting employee mental well-being, by ensuring everyone feels protected and cared for throughout the transition.
You’ll have different considerations depending on what your company plans to do (SHRM has some good information about that here). But whatever route you choose to take, some things will change and some will stay the same.
There are some unique challenges to keep in mind…
- If you’re continuing with a remote, officeless option, you’ll need to find ways to keep your employees social, engaged, and happy from afar.
- If you’re proceeding with a hybrid or flexible option, you’ll have to find ways to stay cohesive as a mixed team and ensure that policies are laid out in a way that prevents confusion or anxiety and avoids ‘proximity bias.’
- If you’re all returning to the physical workplace, you’ll need to address any concerns or fears people may have about the physical space and safety measures, and account for added stress due to commutes and the renewed challenge of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
…but no matter how you return to work, there will be a few universal factors to consider.
Six things you’ll want to consider as you return to work:
- Managing the long-term effects of COVID on mental health
Many people are struggling with mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic. This could be due to long periods of isolation, bereavement, or the general long-term effects of stress and uncertainty. Employers will need to be sensitive of this and ready to offer support for any new problems.
- Supporting your employees in their self-care
Give your people the tools (and time!) they need to take care of themselves mentally. Meditation is a great way for people to take the time they need for themselves, but just as helpful are other things like warm baths, regular walks, getting enough quality sleep, and listening to music.
“It's more important than ever to listen to our bodies and minds. We've become accustomed to living at work—but that doesn't mean we need to work 24/7. You have to step away, turn off your computer, and take a deep breath. Right now it's important to give back to yourself, recharge, and focus on what gives you energy.”
—Scott Domann, Chief People Officer @ Calm
- Returning a sense of control to people
Your employees may feel as if they’ve had zero control over circumstances for the past few months. By giving your employees increased autonomy and (if possible) flexibility around planning their days, you can help them regain some of that control—which can help to moderate their stress levels.
This can also help them to feel less overwhelmed by any additional responsibilities that they may have in their home life (for example, if they have kids who still haven’t returned to school). After all, it’s easier to stay mentally strong in the face of change if you know that your work life can flex around you to fit your needs.
“At Okta, we implemented a ‘Dynamic Work’ model, which gives our employees flexibility and choice around how they work. With Dynamic Work, employees can work from wherever makes most sense for them, choose whether or not they want to go into one of our global office hubs (and how often they go in, if they do), and can adapt their work schedule to fit their home life and other responsibilities. It’s working really well.”
—Natasha Vo, Global Employee Experience Program Manager @ Okta
- Planning work schedules with a people-first approach
Even if you need everyone to return to a physical workplace, it’s important to remember that people’s home lives may have changed significantly in this time. If possible, allow for greater flexibility in work schedules and accommodate people’s concerns in terms of their commutes. And if any members of your team rely on public transport, you may want to help them find alternate travel options that can keep them—and those they interact with—safe and healthy.
“What our people needed the most was flexibility in their schedules—so that was the first thing we gave them. If someone needs to step away for an hour or two to do virtual schooling with their children, that’s fine. That's their focus, and we need to work around that. Employee well-being is the most important thing, even if it means sacrificing the traditional nine-to-five.”
—Jennifer Aylwin, Global Benefits Director @ Nuance Communications
- Paying extra attention
With the hustle and bustle surrounding a return to work, it’s inevitable that some things may slip through the cracks—but don’t let your employees’ mental states be one of them! Conducting regular pulse surveys can help you to determine how people are coping and whether any areas of concern are cropping up. (This article has some great tips on designing surveys to assess employee mental well-being.)
- Offering an avenue to ask for help.
It’s important that people feel they can ask for help when they need to. Provide clear points of contact to individuals who can help and/or be prepared to direct struggling employees to relevant helpful resources. And be sure to let people know that it’s okay to talk about not feeling okay.
“We’re training at least one HR professional to be a Mental Health First Aider at each of our international locations, and they offer support and are equipped to point struggling employees in the right direction to get the help they need. We’re also developing broader training for managers and employees around spotting the signs of stress and burnout, managing stress, and developing healthy coping strategies. We want to reduce the stigma around speaking up about mental health.”
—Colin Jansen, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Manager, International @ The Kraft Heinz Company
It’s going to be a long road back to any sense of normality, and the path ahead remains uncertain. But you can help your employees—whether remote, in a physical workplace, or somewhere in between—by building a culture of resilience in your organization and working mental fitness into your workplace strategy.