When the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold, organizations across the world were plunged into vast uncertainty. And although the road ahead is still uncertain and will inevitably be difficult to navigate, business leaders are shifting their thoughts from whether they can return to the office to how they can do it.

Organizations embarking on re-entry to the office environment will be faced with many logistical and operational challenges. Although giving careful thought to the likes of seating configurations, staggered working schedules, visitor policies, hygiene efforts, and common area usage is important, so too is engaging properly with employees and considering their wellbeing upon their return.

Indeed, this re-entry ‘phase’ of the ongoing pandemic provides business leaders with a compelling reason to engage with employees and strengthen their relationships. It’s a unique and widely unprecedented opportunity to rebuild organizational health and productivity through the recognition and addressing of human emotions—loss, grief, and anxiety.

If organizations are unable to address these and assist employees in managing their mental health in what is a time of near-universal anxiety for us all, bringing people back to work will do nothing to help them return to pre-pandemic levels of productivity and prosperity.

To that end, any organizational re-entry planning should include measures to reduce employee anxiety. Here are a few ways that you could approach this:

1. Make employee wellbeing a top priority

Employees want to be reassured that their health and wellbeing come first whenever possible, especially during these difficult times. There are plenty of examples of larger companies doing things such as Apple offering paid sick days and Target providing all employees with an extra $2 per hour during the early days of the pandemic.

There are lots of different ways you can prioritize employee wellbeing; it doesn’t have to be a case of providing financial incentives. So long as you’re putting safety above profits and taking care of your employees’ wellbeing as much as you can, you can’t go far wrong.

2. Be sensitive to employees’ needs

Before thinking about widescale re-entry, leaders and other decision makers should try to understand where their employees are mentally and prepare accordingly. Some will be enthusiastic about and excited to return, whereas others won’t be ready to leave the comfort of their home offices quite yet. Some will also sit in the middle, wanting to re-enter but hesitant and worried about the risks to their health and the safety of those closest to them.

In addition to health concerns, people are anxious about the long-term uncertainty around coronavirus restrictions and their jobs. Will they be made redundant? Worse still, will their employer go under? Will a recession or economic downturn wipe out their retirement savings?

Without taking practical steps to find this information out, you can’t help your employees and accommodate their needs. So, make sure that you’re surveying people regularly so that you know where on the ‘re-entry spectrum’ they fall. Focus on their mental preparedness and try to identify any practical concerns. Try to find answers to questions like:

  • Which employees wish to come back as soon as possible?
  • Which employees wish to come back, but have concerns?
  • Which employees aren’t ready to return yet?
  • Who will need more time to be comfortable?
  • Which employees are in high-risk groups?
  • Which employees are facing other challenges such as childcare or looking after a relative who’s isolating?

Once you have information like this, you can improve your re-entry planning by catering to the needs of individuals more.

3. Communicate and be transparent

We’ve spoken a lot about the importance of clear and transparent communication in the context of home-based working and the wider pandemic, and the same goes for re-entry. We see political leaders such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau conducting regular and transparent briefings, and this has made them trusted sources for COVID-19 guidance, and the same can be applied to businesses.

A consistent level of communication from your organization’s CEO and key decision makers about what’s going on, what the current situation is, and what’s in the pipeline is crucial for managing employee anxiety during re-entry. Organizations that have spent the pandemic engaging in an open, two-way dialog with their employees will be much better prepared for re-entry efforts and the difficult conversations they can involve.

According to the Harvard Business Review, employees who regularly receive updates from their companies are more likely to hold positive views of their employers and are more likely to look forward to returning to work.

4. Follow public health guidance and swiftly implement new measures

It’s absolutely crucial that if you’re going to re-open your workspace and ask employees to return, that you ensure that it’s 100 per cent compliant with current health guidance.

The advice and guidance given by health authorities and experts are generally well-received and trusted, and employees will be less inclined to come back to the office if you’re not acting within it. Measures that you can take to follow the general guidance of health experts include:

  • Screening employees prior to re-entry and take temperatures daily
  • Encouraging sick employees to stay home
  • Introducing flexible sick leave policies and procedures
  • Regular and extensive cleaning of work areas
  • Providing personal protective equipment
  • Promoting personal hygiene
  • Implementing social distancing and one-way systems

Guidance can change suddenly, so make sure that you’re keeping up to date with the latest developments and quickly implement any new measures.

5. Provide extra flexibility

If this pandemic has taught organizations anything, it’s that large-scale home-based working does work for some industries, and that it’s entirely possible to get things done outside of the office environment. It’s been so successful for some companies, in fact, that large companies including Facebook and Twitter have moved to a predominately remote working model.

It’s also proven that it’s not necessary for everyone to work at the same time on set schedules; employees’ individual needs and preferred working hours can be accommodated. And as workplaces re-open, leaders should expect some pressure to maintain this level of flexibility, particularly from those employees hardest hit by the pandemic who aren’t able to commit to fully returning to the office, if at all.

Therefore, organizations should at the very least provide extra flexibility during the ongoing pandemic and any re-entry efforts, with a view to reviewing and re-evaluating their work-from-home policies in the long term.