How to ease employees back into the workplace

Modern team meeting, group work and social distancing, coronavirus, returning to the office

With the lifting of coronavirus restrictions and the beginning of the new school year, a significant proportion of the workforce have returned to offices and workplaces over the last month.

Many have been working from home and others have been subject to the government furlough scheme, but now employers are keen to see their offices full again.

However, many workers still have doubts about returning to pre-pandemic working habits. Many found working from home advantageous. Parents were able to drop their children off at school and workers across a variety of industries were able to  focus more closely on complex projects without distractions. Skipping the daily commute saved many workers time and money.

To make returning to office-based work patterns appealing, employers will have to find new strategies and approaches. Tony Gregg, Chief Executive at executive search firm Anthony Gregg Partnership highlights a number of ways directors can ease their workforce back into the office, making the experience as stress-free as possible.

Be an active, considerate listener

Discussions around returning to the office can be tense and emotional as many people preferred remote working. These tough conversations require sensitivity and a clear approach to the issues they can raise, such as childcare and work-life balance.

Constructive conversations rely on respectful, two-way communication, where everyone’s input is genuinely considered. It’s vital to show as much enthusiasm for hearing the other person’s opinion as you do for giving your own. Even if the decision is already made, people need to feel heard, or else these conversations will only leave them feeling demotivated and potentially less productive.

It’s helpful to view difficult discussions as opportunities for collaborative problem solving. Don’t dwell on negatives or rehash disagreements. Instead, acknowledge everyone’s feelings and viewpoints, then steer the conversation towards finding actionable solutions. 

Making the commute engaging and enjoyable

For many employees, the office itself isn’t what puts them off returning: it’s the journey. To explore this, research is being done into the current attitudes of commuters. Surveys by PwC show that nearly 60% of commuters wanted enhanced cleaning and greater availability of hand sanitiser to remain after the pandemic. 

Research by the CBI, in collaboration with KPMG, produced recommendations for encouraging commuters to return to public transport which emphasised issues of affordability and sustainability. Other suggestions included providing free Wi-Fi so people can work while travelling, and more flexible, affordable ticketing. Companies could provide resources like subscriptions to ebook or audiobook platforms for commuting employees.

A think tank has recently said that ‘up to 20 million workers would see their real incomes rise if employers subsidised their commutes’. Collectively, those travelling by rail could save up to £2.6bn.

Be honest with your employees

With the current challenges facing senior leadership staff, it’s important that they commit to creating an environment of trust and honesty. This boosts employee morale and enables more productive communication.

When it comes to the return to the workplace, it’s crucial that leaders are transparent about the working arrangements they want to see and the reasons for their policies. Even if an employee would rather work remotely, giving a clear and honest explanation of why they are needed in the office can reduce resentment.

Look at your current benefits and incentives

For many of us, experiencing lockdowns and restrictions has highlighted the importance of time spent at home with family. Some employees have found that working from home has helped them better maintain both successful professional and personal lives, and they are reluctant to give this up. 

To attract workers back into the office, employers must look at making their surroundings more inviting for their employees. This might include innovative co-working spaces or software, or programmes and facilities such as free on-site fitness or wellness classes at lunchtime or after work. 

Ensuring that workers can still enjoy some of the benefits of working at home while in the office could also be a solution. For example, if parents found that being at home meant they spent less on childcare, employers could tempt them back by providing extra financial assistance or flexible working hours for those with young children.

Planning and following up

When having discussions about returning to the workplace, it’s important to prepare and follow up appropriately and effectively. Plan how you will present proposals for returning to the office without sounding critical of those who have been working from home. Following these potentially difficult conversations, you will need clear, measurable plans and targets for implementing the solutions you have found. 

It’s clear that employers cannot simply expect their staff to return to exactly the same working patterns as before the pandemic. They must create open, constructive channels of communication around the issue, and be ready to compromise. The best approach to getting people back into the office is through persuasion and incentivisation, not threats of pay cuts or other punitive measures. When faced with reluctance, employers will need to identify what staff have found advantageous about working from home and find alternative ways to ensure these benefits are also provided by in-person working.

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