As the world recovers from COVID-19, companies are rolling out their return-to-office plans following prolonged remote working arrangements. The pandemic and the resulting shift to remote working has negatively impacted the nature of social capital in organisations. Studies have reported that employees felt more isolated and less connected in adjusting to the ‘new normal’. Companies should therefore effectively prepare their employees for social reintegration so as to promote wellness in the workplace.
A gradual ‘return to the office’
A study in Japan (opens a new window) reported that 80% of employees would prefer to remain working from home. Staff share the same apprehensions when it comes face-to-face interactions. This can be attributed to a phenomenon called “reverse culture shock”, where a once familiar place, person or event suddenly feels strange and foreign. In consideration of this situation, companies should implement their return to office plan progressively. This includes maximising the hybrid working approach to enable employees to adjust better, which also allows for better and to ensure no drop in productivity and efficiency.
Optimise the workplace
As an organisation, it’s time to strategically rethink how to define a physical workplace that can serve modern ways of working and new employee expectations about workplace collaboration, personal space and flexibility.
Setting up both solo and collaborative working spaces, incorporating convenient sanitation stations and optimising the office for the physical-digital hybrid will also help employees in their transition back to in-office work and allow a larger extent of flexibility.
Communication is key
In times of change or crisis, it is crucial for management to be seen reinforcing key messages, such as an organisation’s vision, company-wide goals, safety policy and precautionary measures, and future-proofing the workplace. Keep the workforce in the loop consistently, clearly and regularly with full transparency. This can help boost employee morale in the midst of uncertainty and greatly help in periods of tough transitions.
According to the Tannenbaum-Schmidt leadership behaviour continuum, the less managerial authority exercised, the more freedom is afforded to the employee, and vice versa. And leadership can be categorised into 6 distinctive styles:
Tells, where the manager makes the decision and tells the team
Sells, where the manager makes the decision and sells it to the team
Suggests, where the manager presents suggestions and invites questions from the team
Consults, where the manager considers the team’s input before arriving at the final decision
Shares, where the manager shares the decision-making responsibility with the team
Delegates, where the manager defines the limits of the decision-making needed on the part of the team, then allows the team to make those decisions
Companies must decide what style and level of communication to use for a given situation, in order to effectively communicate with employees.
Create a stronger sense of belonging to engage employees
Hold office functions where employees can freely socialise. Strong workplace relationships foster a sense of belonging to a group, a sense of feeling cared for by others and caring about others. According to Microsoft (opens a new window), this also stimulates productivity and innovation. With everyone coming from a place where social isolation or distancing is the norm because of Covid-19, some people may have understandably become rusty with face-to-face social interactions. Companies can purposefully create opportunities for meaningful professional and social interactions, such as team lunches, in-office events and customer engagement experiences.
Watch out for signs of distress. According to the Academy of Management Journal (opens a new window), 50% of employees state that they would rather stay quiet at work rather than express it. This confirms the vital role of employers in spotting signs of distress in their workforce. Re-entry anxiety, coupled with work and life stressors, negatively affects an employee’s mental wellbeing and productivity. Supervisors should therefore be more sensitive to signs, which can include anything from difficulty concentrating on tasks, forgetfulness or looking tired, to spacing out or anxiety, among others.
Allow employees to communicate their challenges freely. Most employees are not comfortable sharing personal issues or mental battles that they are going through and sometimes this affects their work quality. It is thus important for employers to create a safe space in the workplace by encouraging employees to communicate their challenges openly and comfortably at work, and reflectively listening to their employees’ pain points.
Make an effort to engage with employees beyond their work roles. For managers, fostering an environment of open communication can be as simple as starting a casual, non-work-related conservation and showing a genuine interest in their employees’ personal endeavours. For instance, might be asking how their weekend went or how their kids are doing.
Practice empathy. Change is difficult because it can challenge how we think, how we work, the quality of our relationships, and even our physical security or sense of identity. The 4 stages of change include:
Shock and disorientation
Anger and other emotional responses in coming to terms with the “new normal”
Leaders may find it difficult to fully comprehend an employee’s situation. Here are some steps they can start with to show greater empathy in the workplace:
Show sincere interest in the needs, hopes and dreams of other people
Demonstrate a willingness to help an employee with personal problems
Show compassion when other people disclose a personal loss
Remember that empathy is a skill that can be practiced. By taking small steps to truly understand how people feel, we can make them feel heard, wanted and needed.
Provide preventative wellness programmes
Oftentimes, people address their mental health challenges too late, when they are on the brink of a breakdown or at the point where they are making poor decisions. At work, this could manifest in a number of ways, such as a drastic decline in productivity, conflict with others, or even quitting the job. PWC’s research (opens a new window) found that investing proactively in a mental healthcare programme can improve more than double ROI. Companies should strengthen a culture of self-care and offer wellness programmes, such as wellness check-ins and stress management and resiliency education, to help employees with their social reintegration post-Covid.
As employees return to the office for work, supporting mental health will be a key factor in successful reintegration and employers should take an active role in promoting workplace wellness. If you wish to learn about ways to reintegrate your employees in the office, please contact the following:
Rhea Ablan, Head of Employee Benefits, Philippines | +632 811 0388 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Stella Sung, Head of Benefits and Health, Greater China & Korea | +852 2250 2831 | email@example.com
Rachael Tay, Regional Head of Benefits, Asia Pacific | +65 8869 8592 | firstname.lastname@example.org