Over the last few years, many organisations have invested a huge amount of time and effort in establishing and embedding a wellbeing culture. While the immediate shift to home working during lockdown will have affected this culture, it is the return to the office in the longer term that’s likely to present the biggest challenge to date.
Some employees will be keen to get back to ‘normal’, while others will have varying degrees of anxiety. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work, and empathy will be key.
During lockdown, employees had to rapidly adapt to a new way of working, and as offices began to re-open, they had to adapt again. Recent UK Government guidelines on working from home where possible may have caused you to halt or change your plans for the return to the office, and this further change may be causing your employees to feel anxious or stressed. This further emphasises the need for organisations to carefully prepare the transition back into the workplace in order to have long-standing effects on workplace culture.
So how can companies ensure they maintain their wellbeing focus during this period and inspire confidence in employees?
1. Clear communication
Uncertainty can impact employees’ wellbeing, so be transparent in your return to work plans and keep employees updated on your progress. Even better, ask for employee feedback to ensure the plans are tested and challenged in advance – and listen to their responses. Be prepared to adapt your plans if necessary, and, where you can’t, explain the thinking behind your decisions so that employees understand the reasons and can see it has been thought through.
2. Prepare your teams well in advance
It is important to prepare everyone as best you can in advance of the return, especially your line managers who are on the front line. At John West we invested internally in coaching workshops, utilising our parent company’s in-house training team through the Thai Union Academy. We also partnered with GBS Corporate Training to deliver a three-hour return to work training programme for all our managers. Not only did this look at the logistics of the return, but it also featured techniques and tips to help manage change, exploring topics such as the underlying motivations of behaviour, developing a growth mindset, and employee wellbeing, including positive mindset influencing.
I would encourage organisations to make the return to work as simple and visual as possible. Find ways to show your employees what the new office format will look like in advance, be that through video or images. Consider preparing a playbook for your employees that covers all the information they will require in the one place, making the transition as easy and understandable as possible.
During this period surprise will certainly not be your friend – reassure and prepare employees so they can start to grasp and manage the changes in advance.
3. Be flexible and creative in your return to office
Consider new working patterns and flexing your start and finish times. One option might be to split your teams to create ‘bubbles’, or to combine home and office working to phase the return to the workplace, especially for those who are still experiencing challenges with childcare.
It’s important for HR leaders to plan what the first day back in the office should look and feel like.
Find space and time to meet with everyone and brief them in advance of entering the building. Simplify any additional steps that need to be taken when re-entering the office and think about how technology can help. Automated temperature checking, for example, is fast and efficient and has little impact on the individual.
4. Focus on trust and empathy
As doubt remains over further Covid-19 outbreaks and with possible changes to employees’ personal circumstances, it is very important that organisations are agile and prepared to flex their return to work plan always putting the health and safety of their employees first.
Some employees will be keen to get back to ‘normal’, while others will have varying degrees of anxiety. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work, and empathy will be key in sustaining trust and ensuring employees feel supported psychologically, as well as feeling physically safe. Trust is key, so extend trust to your workforce and remember to lead by example.
Keep an eye on those team members who cannot return to the workplace straight away, and make sure they don’t suddenly feel excluded or worse still, vilified. Continue to celebrate success both in the office and remotely. Encourage and support your employees to explore new coping mechanisms including yoga, mindfulness, running and other positive wellbeing activities. For example, at John West we have safeguarded the lunch break as this can be an opportune time for this.
5. Ensure your wellbeing infrastructure is signposted and fully understood by employees
We know that take-up of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) across the UK is extremely low, but this is a real opportunity to re-engage with your employees who will be more captive given the circumstances.
If you have an EAP scheme, ensure everyone has the phone number and understands the services available to them. Consider developing a wellbeing hub where you and your employees can share materials and updates. Don’t make this an HR-lead programme – engage and build a network across your organisation including first aiders, mental health first aiders and wellbeing/mental health ambassadors who are trained to pre-empt and react as well as to sign post for support.
How we manage the return to office will deﬁne our success as much as our initial response to the crisis. If organisations fail to plan and invest properly, then the negative impact on company culture will be felt for some time.
Interested in this topic? Read How to support line managers during the transition back to work.