The other day one of my staff asked what a return to the office would look like. Until that afternoon, I have not given it much thought. The COVID-19 lockdown is so protracted that is has become second nature. We don’t think twice about working from home or Zoom meetings anymore. It feels so familiar these days, it’s hard to imagine a time when we have to go to an office.
But the reality is Victoria’s new infections and death rates are dropping, and the Andrews’ Government will start relaxing strict social distancing rules if this continues. Employers must start asking ‘What would a return to the office look like for their business?’
The good news for employers is that our workers (up to 61% surveyed) are keen to return to a physical office – according to a recent survey by the ABC. Everyone is tired of being locked at home. The novelty of working from home is wearing off and workers are craving the structure, efficiency, and social interaction of an office environment.
But if employers think we can just press the ‘restart’ button and everything will return to pre-pandemic days, we are mistaken. The world has yet to defeat this deadly virus. Returning to the office is going to look and feel different. Our workers may be worried and anxious about this return. As employers, we must prepare them for this re-entry.
So, I have been thinking a lot about strategies that can help employers prepare for a return to the office. We start by helping ourselves first. Here are some ideas I would like to share with you:
Accept that autopilot work may not happen
The office we are returning to is going to be different from the one we left in March. For a start, the physical changes will be obvious. If we are working in a building, we may have your temperatures taken before we can enter it. We will be told to use hand sanitisers before and after we use the lifts. When we get to the office, we find our workstations have been re-configured and we are sitting alone with a 1.5-metre distance between us and our colleagues. We could be wearing masks.
It’s not just the physical that has changed. Our mental framework has changed too. Employers must accept that our staff returning to the office cannot simply flick a switch and return to pre-COVID productivity. They will need a period of adjustments. To confound things further, the environment we operate in is likely to change constantly and we have to change with it. The new normal is not the old ways.
Here’s the thing, every time we are faced with the unknown, we are going to start feeling anxious. Feeling anxious does not necessarily mean something bad is going to happen. But it is a natural human reaction when we are out of our comfort zone.
Coming back to a new work environment can trigger this anxiety. Some of us can suppress our fears and bury them under layers of feigned confidence and positivity. Others wear them on their sleeves. No matter how we cope with anxiety, we have to pay close attention to it. If we are not managing our stress, we can end up taking it out on others.
A friend of mine worked in essential services throughout the first and second wave. She became worried about wearing PPE at work and started taking upon herself to police her colleagues. Naturally, she upset many people at the factory with her constant admonishing.
Stay on top of your anxieties and stress. Find someone you can confide in whether it’s your superior, a family member or a healthcare professional. If we don’t manage our stress, we cannot be there to help our staff manage theirs.
Be patient and flexible
I talked about staff needing time to adjust earlier in this article. Even the 9-to-5 routine is going to feel strange for a while. Our staff will not only be dealing with transitioning challenges, they may also be called upon to adapt to sudden and unexpected changes. Even our customers’ behaviours have changed in lockdown and we may have to change the way we communicate and interact with them. Every one of these issues can present a challenge to an organisation.
Moving forward, the best way to manage is to be patient and flexible. Give our staff sufficient time to transition. Adjust our expectations and adapt the performance measurements to manage these changes.
‘Watch out for the APE in the room’
I get a reaction from the audience every time I speak about ‘Being an APE’. APE is the acronym I use to describe assumptions, perceptions, and expectations.
Assumptions are our preconceived notions of how a person works, thinks, or behaves. In times of uncertainties, our convictions can become stronger because it is our coping mechanism.
Perceptions, on the other hand, refer to our understanding or interpretation of something. Perception is fundamentally individual to the person. Two persons attending a concert can have diverging perceptions of the event.
Expectations are what we believe will happen or occur. Our expectations are based on specific experiences we have at work as well as our personal life experiences. It is normal for managers to have expectations about our staff’s performance or response. But when our expectations are not met, we can become frustrated or disappointed.
Now is the time to practise empathy in the workplace. Empathy is not sympathy. It is not about feeling sorry for your staff because they cannot find a babysitter but has to report to work. It is about putting yourself in their shoes and trying to feel what they are feeling. If you can do that, you will find it easier to adjust your expectations.
Likewise, our staff have expectations too. For instance, they expect us to have the answers. You are likely to get questions with no clear or satisfactory answers. Be honest and upfront with your team. If you don’t have the answer, tell them so and commit to updating them as soon as you can. It is also perfectly fine to ask them to help out if you need it. The best leaders are not afraid to ask for help.
Stay focused to motivate
We may not be able to control the environment, but we can stay focused on what we have to achieve. Keeping the business viable is a big picture goal everyone can aspire towards. It means keeping people employed. It is a good way to motivate the team to be productive again.
Bring some happiness
One of the best ways to make a transition smoother is by making it easier for others to cope. Be the person that will bring a smile to others. Strike up a conversation and ask them about how they are coping. Share an inspiring story or a funny anecdote and show appreciation if someone has put in the effort. You don’t need a strong argument to express gratitude. You can even say ‘thank you’ to someone for simply being around. While you are doing your best to bring happiness and laughter back to the office, don’t forget about the team members who are still working from home.
Everyone is different.
Each individual is going to respond differently to the transition back to the office.
If we are sensitive to their feelings, we can ease their transition.
Back in March, when the government took drastic and immediate measures to shut the economy, many of us were taken by surprise. We had few precedents to guide us. Turning my dining table into a workstation, adapting to video, and coordinating multiple projects remotely was not easy. There were times, I felt overwhelmed and ‘lost in the unfamiliar’. I knew my team was feeling the same way. What we did to survive bears testimony to this year’s most powerful word ‘together’. We banded together. We became resourceful and creative. Eventually, we made it worked.
As we embark on transitioning back to the office, we must once again call upon our combined strength – our togetherness – to make it work, again. This time we can be prepared. We don’t have to be caught by surprise.
Book a discovery call with Iris and see how she can support you or your organisation in improving leadership skills, productivity and team engagement.
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Iris Du is a leadership strategist and human behaviour expert who thrives on helping individuals, leaders and businesses achieve the success they deserve. Drawing on leadership, attraction and manifestation strategies, Iris works with organisations to help them leverage their natural talent to create highly engaged and high-performing leaders and teams.