Leaders Have To Manage Mixed Emotions On Going Back To Work Post-pandemic

Remember the Monday blues? The dread of the approaching Sunday evening? Only this time, the weekend has lasted for months, and inevitably, most employees are being extremely anxious at the prospect of rejoining. In fact, it seems like businesses are having a harder time reopening then shutting down in the first place.

Over the past several months, we have all experienced so much change. For a long time, the air was rank with fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, and many of us felt the brunt of social isolation and loneliness. Even though some employees might be excited to return to the workplace and regain a vestige of their previous life; others might feel apprehensive, either because of trepidation about contracting the infection or fear for the lives of their loved ones, or becoming accustomed to their new routine; while many will feel a combination of the two.

As such, leadership will be key to a successful transition back to the workplace.  Just as leaders helped smooth the transition to widespread telework and social distancing at the start of the pandemic, it is important to take steps to ease the transition back into the workplace.

Plan For Strong And Surprising Emotions

 Remember the grief and the trauma that your employees went through at the onset of this pandemic. Their lives were unceremoniously turned topsy-turvy all of a sudden. It may seem counterintuitive, but people will experience something along the same lines when they re-enter the workplace. For many of us, working from home was a huge transition at first, but eventually people got accustomed to the new rhythm and the absence of a commute, and the flexibility afforded by this life style. And there were unexpected perks, like getting to spend more time with their immediate families, indulging in hobbies they never had time for, catching up on snooze, and connecting with friends more deeply, even by phone or video. This became the new norm, and now with the economy reopening bit by bit, our lives are about to flip over again.

However, work life has its own thrills, not to mention, we have all developed intense friendships at work and will no doubt feel excited to see our co-workers and work with them face-to-face again. There will be hearty greetings and euphoria when colleagues see each other after what seems like ages. But then again, the pandemic has left us feeling constantly vulnerable and most of your team will feel heightened anxiety about their health in the office and on their commutes, not to mention not everyone will take too well to the new restrictions on wearing masks and social distancing norms will take some time getting used to.

When you factor all of these emotions together, you have a workplace that is moody, not very productive, and often, unpredictable. Expect this. Make sure your key leaders expect this too.

The best way to handle this back to work emotional kaleidoscope is to re-initiate frequent one-on-ones and team meetings to keep on track of how your team members are feeling. Reassure people that it’s normal to have ups and downs as they enter a new phase. Don’t be stern if they don’t perform their best immediately after returning to work. Ask if they have specific concerns about getting to the office, such as travelling by public commute or lack of childcare at home and help them resolve these issues. Listen with empathy and give them an outlet to express themselves.

Put their mind to ease by letting them know of the security measures you are taking to mitigate the spread of the virus and assure them that you have their best interest at heart. Keep an eye out for signs of stress like increased irritability, lack of motivation or mistakes on the job, and conflict with co-workers. Leaders can work hand-in-hand with team members to alleviate stressors and listen to people who might be struggling with yet another transition.

Last but not the least, Provide a confidential email address or hotline for employees to express concerns about returning to the workplace and other stressors.

Create A Detailed Re-opening Plan

I wish there were a button that could restore things to normal with a single push!

 The logistics of restarting the office are turning out to be harder than businesses had anticipated. For starters, your office layout will need to be reconfigured to adhere to social distancing requirements. You may not have room to make employees maintain distance, in which case, you will have to divide them into shifts or repurpose communal areas. You may have to implement temperature monitoring devices at all entrances and ask people to wear masks and gloves at all times.

However, while you can repeatedly ask people to sanitize their work areas, sneeze into a tissue, cover their faces, and limit the number of people in the conference room, people tend to forget. What leaders can do is to create a cross-functional and cross-level task force to plan and lead the re-entry process. Frequently communicate the protections that will be in place (PPE requirements, testing requirements, physical distancing, sick leave, and compensation policies, etc.) to prepare employees for what to expect in the workplace as they return.

Busiensses should be mindful of guidance from local government and health departments when planning to reopen and phase in people coming back to work. Most importantly, leaders should also communicate the new guidelines across the entire workforce and explain why they are important to follow.

As the leader, you need to set a role model that others can follow. If you take off your mask at will, others will do the same!

Prepare Supervisors

Make sure all supervisors at your company are prepared to help employees as they return. Train them to observe if someone is feeling anxious or fearful by recognizing behaviors. Your supervisors should lead by example and reinforce follow recommendations given to employees about managing stress, using company resources, exercising selfcare, and taking paid time off by their own actions. If possible, offer courses to supervisors in resilience, respectful communication, and conflict resolution, so as to make sure that they don’t dismiss employee’s individual experiences, fears, and feelings, but rather focus on providing a solution.

Make sure your company supervisors can recognize employees who are experiencing mental health distress or back-to-work anxiety and link them to appropriate company and community resources. Ask your supervisors and managers to lower down expectations, space out deadlines, and decrease non-essential demands for the first few weeks back, to give employees time to re-adjust to the new norm. Not to mention, managers should be able to acknowledge perceived challenges during team meetings, \ create a safe space for discussions, and make sure that employees who are experiencing stress and anxiety know how to access support.

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