Leading with empathy: how to manage back to work expectations

The CDC finally approved the reopening of offices and workspaces, but business is not as usual. Returning to the office may seem like a long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel, but  it is one of the biggest challenges we face as we leave quarantine restrictions behind. Companies now have to balance minimizing health and safety risks with maintaining operations and productivity. Additionally, management teams must mitigate  employees’ growing anxiety about returning to the office after long-term working from home amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, how can you transition back into the office in a thoughtful, empathetic, and intentional manner given the implications? What are the best ways to  implement in-person collaboration without overwhelming your team?

Bridge the gap between leadership & your employees

Bridging the gap between leadership teams and employees is crucial when creating an inclusive and welcoming office environment. Major companies like Google and Apple are making the return to the office mandatory despite kickback from their employees. There are two sides to every story, though. Leadership has invested in office real estate, is ill-prepared for remote team management, and wishes to encourage in-person collaboration and creativity. Meanwhile, employees are gaining back 2+ hours a day without the commute, can comfortably and safely work in their own homes, and are less fearful of getting sick. Unfortunately, there isn’t one perfect work model that will resolve these issues yet.

To find the perfect balance between in-office and remote workspaces for your organization, open the conversation to your employees and give them the platform to speak up. What are they comfortable with? What concerns may they have about working in the office? How is leadership going to prioritize employees’ safety and health? Gathering direct and honest feedback from employees shows them that you care and want to understand their perspective. As a result, the solutions, policies, and processes you implement will diminish the anxiety your employees feel because it will be based on actual concerns. According to psychologists from the University of California, “Anxiety is an emotion about a distant, potentially negative outcome that is uncertain and unpredictable.” While leadership teams cannot predict the future, they can help lessen the likelihood of a negative outcome that employees are worried about by responding to feedback and taking action before asking teams to come back to the office. Give your employees a sense of control of the situation, and they’ll start to develop a stronger sense of trust in your capabilities and intentions.

Read more: Four return-to-office surveys to ask your remote team.

Be transparent and set expectations

2020 was the year of “unprecedented” and “uncertainty,” but 2021 shouldn’t have to be the same. Once you find a work model that both your leadership and employees appreciate, create a return strategy and communicate accordingly. Announce return deadlines as early as possible so employees can prepare for things like moving back to the headquarters’ city or finding child care. Be very clear about the work model you’ve chosen and stick to it. If you choose a hybrid model, communicate with employees who will be expected to come in, what their schedule might look like, and  how you will best support them when they return.

The most important thing is to be transparent. Again, anxiety breeds from uncertainty. If your employees are in the dark, they may be reluctant to return to the office. Keep them up to date on all changes and make sure to have an open channel of communication for questions and feedback>. When setting up your employees for success upon their return to the office, be sure to give details and rationale behind  why they are expected to return and why it is beneficial.

Read more: How to apply active listening skills to your remote team.

Take a “people-first” approach

Your employees are people and they have concerns the same way all humans do! Take extra measures to protect the health and well-being of your employees. This can come in many different forms, such as:

  • Implement  health and safety policies  like mask requirements providing sanitation stations in the office, and distancing desks.
  • Conduct health screening tests on all in-office employees
  • Provide mental health resources for those who may be struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Offer a flexible work hours or additional paid-time-off for those who are required to return to the office
  • Conduct regular pulse checks with employees to check on their sentiment and happiness

Read more: Four employee pulse surveys to check-in with your remote team.

What will Poll Everywhere do?

Prior to COVID-19, 40% of Poll Everywhere employees were working remotely. With flexible work-from-home days for in-office employees and a stable remote work program, a hybrid model is what has worked best for us. In fact, we share our best tips on managing remote teams and scaling up company culture in our eBook.

If there is one lesson to take away from this past year, it is to lead with empathy. In the end, we are all humans just scrambling to make things work given the circumstances. Act with  kindness and care towards your employees in this time of uncertainty. Lead with a “can-do” attitude and your employees will show the same.