Return to Work Anxiety: How to Help Your Employees

As governments loosen restrictions, many employers have begun developing plans to ensure that employees are brought back to an office setting safely. This includes operational and logistical considerations, setting up employee schedules, elevator usage policies and much more. But it’s important to also address and plan for how to deal with feelings of stress and anxiety around the return to work.

These uncertain times have taken a toll on the mental health of many employees, affecting future productivity and engagement levels. According to a survey conducted by KRC Research and Weber Shandwick, 45 per cent of employees are afraid that their employer will bring them back to the office before it is safe. Additionally, only 34 per cent of employees feel safe returning to work when there is a vaccine or treatment and 52 per cent of employees have growing concerns about the future of their company and their role.

Here are few tips that can help employers strategize for the new normal and address return-to work anxiety:

1. Communicate transparently and regularly
Consistent two-way communication is key to managing employee anxiety. Ensure that your teams receive regular updates about company performance, ongoing initiatives and any business-related information. Keep employees abreast of information that is critical to their role and to the success of your organization. Endorse transparency and engage teams to be a part of the growing conversation.

2. Implement Recommended Public Health Measures
Employees need to be aware of how the company is implementing, monitoring and enforcing government recommended public health measures. CDC provides a comprehensive guideline to help businesses and employers respond to COVID19 within the workplace. Provide your employees with assurance that preventive steps are being taken, closely monitor developments and update protocols as the situation evolves.

3. Provide training to leadership teams
Employees will depend on their managers and leaders to ensure a smooth back to work transition. Organize virtual training sessions that focus on managing a hybrid workforce, developing emotional intelligence and building a collaborative work culture. Arm your leaders with the necessary resources and tools to effectively address employee anxiety over return to work and provide healthy ways to cope with it.

4. Be Flexible
If your company has implemented remote work, consider surveying your employees to see how they feel about continuing that arrangement for a definitive period of time. Gauge the success of your remote work experiment by monitoring the productivity and engagement levels. Employees will expect flexibility, particularly if they are looking after children and parents. For employees that thrive better in an office setting, evaluate and plan for hybrid working arrangements.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Remote Leadership

Currently almost 40% of Canadian employees are working remotely due the COVID19 outbreak. If given a choice, 80% of employees would prefer to continue working from home at least some days of the week, according to Global Workplace Analytics. Employees consider remote work as their ideal work scenario because it leads to greater work-life balance and increases productivity levels. But managing a remote team is not always easy. Managers struggle with feeling of decreased control over their team, monitoring challenges, and problem solving.

Here are some tips to help leaders become better remote workforce managers:

Do

1. Communicate Frequently: Keep your team engaged and connected on a daily basis. Utilizing communication channels and collaboration software is a great way to build and retain engagement. Schedule regular check-ins via video meetings to ensure inclusivity and provide opportunities for employees to raise any issues. Make sure to develop and communicate appropriate work-from home guidelines that define expectations. Just as you would at the office, encourage collaboration on projects and regular feedback.

2. Be Flexible: Regular work hours might be difficult to impose especially under the current circumstances where many kids are at home with their parents. Recognize that this is an un-ordinarily challenging time for many of your employees and being rigid will do more harm than good. Trust your team and provide them with flexibility to work on a schedule that helps them be the most productive. If productivity becomes an issue, especially with an employee that has always been outstanding at their work, learn what is causing this decrease, and work together to develop a solution to get back on track.

3. Set Your Team Up for Success: Remote team collaboration is highly dependent on reliable technology. Ensure that your team has access to appropriate resources and equipment to help them get their work done effectively and to work well together. Also provide your team with sufficient IT support should something go wrong. Remind your team to take breaks and take good care of themselves, physically and mentally. Develop strategies to keep motivation up such as rewards or positive feedback.


Don’t

1. Avoid Video Calls: Digital tools have made remote communication convenient, but that does not guarantee effectiveness. Face-to-face interactions are extremely important to understand non-verbal cues and develop reactions based on what you see, rather than what you read or hear. In addition to emails and texts, managers should incorporate adequate face-to-face communication in their daily routine.

2. Focus On Control: Sometimes managers tend to focus too much on controlling scenarios and how work is performed. This creates a hostile environment for employees, who may already be feeling the pressure of a new way of working. Trust your team and focus on the outcomes, not processes.

3. Lose Company Culture & Connectivity: Remember staying well into the evening, eating pizza with your colleagues, working on that milestone project? Or popping your head into your co-worker’s office to bounce some ideas off of them? This is part of what builds a strong corporate culture and binds people together. Try to translate traditional office activities into your new virtual setting. Organize in-person team gatherings at least once a month, bringing everyone together to reconnect in person.

Remote Onboarding: How to Better Integrate New Hires

When we bring on a new employee, we go the extra mile to make them feel welcomed. We like to leave a special note on their desk with a motivational message. There are lots of introductions and friendly handshakes. Maybe a special lunch event organized. But alas, not anymore. Remote onboarding has proven to be a totally different experience.

While it’s hard to recreate the enthusiasm that you get from a physical in-person introduction to a group of people in an office, making new employees feel appreciated and welcomed should not be deprioritized during this time. Companies can simply make some adaptations to their regular on-boarding routines and make use of technology in order to continue to make a great impression on new hires.

For this article, we spoke with Mark Nishikawa of HIRE Technologies and Lindsay Carson of ProVision Staffing, both of whom had to be introduced into our work family remotely. They shared tips and experiences to help us craft a guide for a more successful onboarding of remote workers:

Digitize on-boarding documents

On-boarding employees usually involves a lot of paperwork, from signing deposit and tax forms to integrating the new hire into a company-wide benefits plan. Digitizing these documents can translate into meaningful time and cost savings for the employer and employee. HR software such as BambooHR, WorkBright, ClearCompany, Zenefits & ProProfs Knowledge Base automate the on-boarding process. For example, ProProfs Knowledge Base helps managers create a virtual employee handbook to familiarize new hires with company policies, vision, mission etc. “Digitizing the onboarding process frees managers from manual paperwork and allows them to shift their focus on optimizing new hire engagement,” Mark suggested.

Setting up a work-from-home station

Cloud-based technologies make it easy for new employees to hit the ground running even from home. Offer assistance in setting those up and make sure to assign appropriate user permissions to avoid frustrations. “It’s helpful to get an overview of what applications and tools are required for the job and to have the login credentials noted in one place,” Lindsay suggested. Be sure to also ship any required hardware (such as laptops) in advance of the start date, preferably all set up and ready to go.

Communication is key

Good, widespread communication is always important but especially so when everyone is working remotely. Announce the addition of a new employee with a company-wide email briefly outlining their role. Include a short profile with their interests and hobbies to help start conversations among the team. “It helps to feel welcome when your manager reaches out consistently and tries to answer your questions,” Lindsay pointed out.

Use Video Conferencing

Face-to-face interactions through video calls are vital to the success of remote onboarding. “A group call to introduce the members of the company is helpful because you can put a face to a name,” Mark mentioned. Organize regular group video calls, even if brief, for the benefit of helping the new employee interact with their coworkers, rebuild office banter, and help keep your company culture alive.

One-on-one meetings

Don’t forget that new employees need a little bit more attention. You want them to last, you want them to be engaged, and you want them to succeed, after all. In an office it is easy to see when someone is struggling or finding something to be a challenge. But remotely not so much. One-on-one virtual meetings or calls between the new employee and their manager are a good way to provide support, identify struggle points, and nurture a professional relationship.

Office Return: Plan Ahead for a New Workplace Normal

It is understandable that employees might be feeling anxious about re-entering the office where once they so freely collaborated and conversed with others.  Everyone is in some sense preparing for the “new normal” at the centre of which is a valid fear of the coronavirus.  According to a recent study conducted by Forrester, 59% of surveyed employees are afraid of its spread.  As company leaders begin to think of returning their staff to an office, it is important that they plan for it in advance, consider the impacts on morale, and make adjustments to minimize any risks of infection.

Employer Obligations

Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”) requires employers to take all reasonable precautions to ensure the health and safety of its workers.  Before moving everyone back into the office, it is prudent to identify and assess risks for COVID19 specific to your company and devise a plan for minimizing those risks.  Evaluate which elements of your business require frequent contact between people, what the movement patterns are, and which rooms as well as objects are shared.

This is the time to revisit and adjust organizational policies to include items such as hygiene, work from home guidelines, or reporting of personal travel and illness.  As an employer it is also your responsibility to ensure that the office is equipped with enough hand soap and sanitizer, that surfaces are disinfected regularly, and to take immediate and appropriate steps in isolating anyone who presents symptoms of an infectious nature.

Reconfiguring the Workspace

Whether yours is an open-concept office or a traditional closed floor plan, consider and understand how the space was being used prior to COVID19.  Were people apt to gathering in one particular area?  What are the high traffic spots and how closely are employees sitting to one another?  Depending on the size of your workforce and office density, explore opportunities for reseating your team to every other desk in any open areas, to leave more distance in between.  If that is not possible, partitions or privacy screens are a good solution.

Minimize use of shared objects such as printers or copiers by shifting to a paperless environment.  Limit the number of persons in smaller, more contained spaces, such as the kitchen, bathroom, or the boardroom.  If you can open windows to let in some fresh air regularly, do so.  Place markers on the floor to direct traffic.  These are just some ways in which you can make low-cost adaptations to the workplace so returning employees will feel safer.

PPE’s & Screening

The Government of Canada recommends that “outside of the health care context, PPE should only be used on the advice of an organization’s occupational health and safety department, based on a risk assessment that considers both the risk associated with a specific task/activity as well as the characteristics of the source of the infection (e.g. a sick person or a contaminated environment).”  Some organizations are requiring employees to wear masks and gloves.  Others have initiated employee questionnaires to assess for illness.  Lean on your health and safety committee to determine what is most appropriate for your company and be sure to consider employee privacy as well as discrimination issues, particularly when implementing any COVID-19 screening practices.

Paced & Strategic Reintroduction

If you don’t have to rush moving everyone back into the office, pacing the return is a smart approach. Start with essential staff who cannot work well remotely and then add a second wave of employees.  At first you can also introduce shifts or staggered work times to ensure there are less people in the office at a given time.  You have likely invested in technologies and other setups for remote work so continue to make use of this arrangement, encouraging staff to work from home as much as possible.

Communication & Morale

A lot of anxiety around returning to the office can be dispelled through regular communication with your team.  Inform them about the steps you are taking to minimize risk and encourage a culture of feedback.  Provide information and updates from government and public health groups.  Post instructions for proper hygiene and cleaning of surfaces.  Educate your employees about the effectiveness of social distancing and encourage leaders to model distancing behaviours such as stopping handshakes, keeping a gap of at least two meters from each other, and staying home when feeling ill.

As swiftly as we had to acclimatize to remote work, just as quickly we will now have to readjust to a new way of working.  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to this.  Once again each company will have to find the right balance of business continuity and employee safety measures, and likely keep adapting them in the months to come.  The way we interact with one another, from business meetings to team brainstorming sessions, is going to be different, at least for the foreseeable future.  Companies that embrace the changes will be that much more resilient.

This article is a contribution by HIRE Technologies. PTC Recruiting is a subsidiary of HIRE