It’s not only new staff who will be feeling anxious, says Louise Rodgers

Louise Rodgers crop 2

“I feel like a new starter again,” said someone I was coaching recently. “I have colleagues I have never met, and there are people I haven’t had a non-work conversation with for the best part of 18 months! I am feeling anxious about returning to the office for all sorts of reasons, but this is one of them.”

She isn’t alone in feeling new to a company she has worked at for years. The upheaval wrought by covid means that even long-term employees returning to the office for at least a couple of days a week may now feel they are starting from scratch. And then there are the new starters, many of whom were recruited and on-boarded remotely. They may never have met their colleagues in person, or even been to their physical office.

This, coupled with continuing uncertainly both around the ongoing pandemic and how the transition back to the office or to some form of hybrid working will impact on individuals and teams, presents employers with several challenges. The one thing that is clear is that employers who take a ‘business as usual’ approach are likely to lose out – whether that is measured in terms of staff well-being, productivity, or churn.

Right now, everyone may benefit from re-onboarding. Here are a few things you can do to get the new term off to a good start.

Remind people of the importance and pleasure of human-to-human connection. Many businesses will be planning more in-person team meetings, perhaps cross-office coffee dates or lunches, but there are more imaginative ways to encourage your people to connect. One developer I know is arranging for groups of staff to make on-site visits with bacon sandwiches and coffee, so that people get a chance to stand around and chat as well as be reminded of the why of their work.

Keep the conversation going about how, and when, people come to the office and remain flexible. Sticking to rigid rules about days and hours may well make them look for a more accommodating employer. A crowded commute is going to make many people feel uncertain and anxious about travelling at peak times. They may not know this until they try it. An open channel of communication with, and between, teams will help to make sure people feel able to express their views about how coming into the office is impacting on them, personally.

Find ways to keep ‘purpose’ central to what you do. People need to feel inspired and see the impact their work has on others. It’s not easy to instil purpose in others. It takes more than motivational talks or mission statements. To help people build an emotional investment in what they do and develop a story about why they love it, leaders need to take a personal, authentic and consistent approach. They also need to create opportunities for people to feel invested in client and user experiences, so that they see the impact of their work first-hand.

Finally, prevent employee burnout and support your team’s mental health. For example, some colleagues may be nervous about restrictions ending – this may be because of personal experience or because vaccination isn’t an option for them or someone close to them. People need to know that their boundaries will be respected around things like handshaking, keeping a distance or avoiding large social events. Make sure conversations about these things are encouraged and welcomed.

Any change is exhausting in the short term, and there’s going to be a lot of adjustment over the next few weeks and months. Open and authentic communication is key during periods of change or uncertainty. Encouraging line managers to discuss fears and preferences with their direct reports and making sure they have the skills to do so will help people to feel they are being ‘heard’, as will building in proper time for career conversations and well-being check-ins.

Look at the kinds of support you provide your people and promote them again – employee assistance programmes, benefits, mental health allies and self-care opportunities can all be offered and will help to ease the transition.

Whether your people are returning to work from furlough, returning to an uncertain future, returning to the workplace after home working – there is a need to anticipate and prevent distress and an opportunity to make huge strides in the way we talk about and address mental health in the workplace.