Even as employers are reopening offices and calling their staff back to in-person work, surveys indicate many employees are reticent about ending remote work; many will consider quitting their jobs if forced to return to the office. “Reentry Anxiety” is a term used to describe the feelings many employees are experiencing, and for various reasons. Employers would be well-served to make efforts to understand the driving factors of reentry anxiety and draft a strategy to support their employees’ ability to manage it; doing so will accelerate a successful office reopening and promote overall workplace effectiveness.
Reentry anxiety may be driven by an employee’s perceptions of change and uncertainty. Humans crave certainty and predictability in their environment at an instinctual level as this provides the conditions to plan for and enhance survival. Change, especially when sudden and dramatic, can be perceived as threatening. At the present time, employees face a great deal of uncertainty as they contemplate their reentry to in-person work, including:
- Health and safety – The pandemic is not over. Even fully vaccinated employees may feel unsafe in the workplace and would prefer to remain working safely from home. Public health messaging changes quickly and is sometimes contradictory, undermining certainty over what activities and interactions are safe.
- Societal strife – Social and political conflict continues, and the impact on in-person workplace interactions is unclear; previously accepted norms may no longer be appropriate, and relationships with co-workers may be different.
- Family care – Finding childcare and eldercare remains difficult for many families as labor shortages have impacted the ability of caregiving agencies to hire adequate staff to meet demand.
Employers who address the uncertainty of resuming in-person work will enhance employees’ abilities to manage their anxious feelings about returning to the office. Here are some considerations for leaders in drafting strategy for this process.
After one year of a pandemic amid major societal upheaval, it may be necessary to contemplate a new workplace reality for employees to succeed. Looking back to how work was accomplished pre-pandemic may not offer adequate lessons to address present challenges; new approaches are likely necessary to move forward from the disruption. Leaders who adopt an open mindset may be more successful at navigating new challenges.
Redefine and Share the Vision
After a year of successfully remote working from basement offices and kitchen counters, many employees need to be convinced that a return to the office is necessary. If in-person work has been proven to be unnecessary, what is the purpose of reporting to the office? Employers who define a new vision for an in-person workplace experience are more likely to excite and retain their workers who effectively pivoted to getting work done while wearing pajamas and avoiding long commutes.
Acknowledge Employee Trauma
During the time of office closures, many employees have faced extraordinary challenges while remote working: personal or family illness, fear of loss or actual loss of loved ones, stress, anxiety, depression. A return to in-person work asks employees to overcome these traumas; this may not be an easy task for many employees. Public acknowledgment of these traumas sends a powerful message of care and compassion.
Prioritize Safety and Belonging
When the human brain senses danger, it becomes preoccupied with thoughts of self-preservation, and mental energy may be unavailable for the higher-level brain functions that are essential for modern workplace activities. Communicating comprehensive workplace safety protocols to employees in advance of reopening may reduce anxiety and free up mental energy to focus on organizational objectives.
COVID-19 infection is not the sole workplace safety concern; psychological safety and the sense of belonging must also be addressed. The last year revealed that a significant portion of American society has felt “less than” and not fully welcomed and included due to their race, sex, gender identity, disability, or other characteristics. Reopening the workplace is an opportunity to communicate a fresh start to workplace culture; welcome back everyone as their authentic selves, where they are encouraged to contribute their unique talents to achieve workplace objectives. Clearly communicate enhanced expectations for inclusion and workplace psychological safety; this may support feelings of belonging and reduce the reentry anxiety of many employees after a year full of socio-political strife.
Identify Sources of Anxiety
Survey employees to identify specific concerns and identify those that may be targeted with employer interventions. Encourage ongoing dialog with employees to identify emergent issues and needs.
Offer Transition Time
Allow flexibility for employees to return to the office; some employees will need more time to make arrangements in their personal life. Surveys indicate that working women are disproportionately responsible for family care responsibilities and thus may request more time than other employees; flexibility can go a long way toward helping them reduce reentry anxiety.
Be a Partner in Problem-Solving
Employees may benefit from EAP resources to identify support resources and services. Another effective approach is to train and empower supervisors to assist employees with problem-solving the challenges in returning to in-person work; this may change expectations and not come naturally to many supervisors. The relationship between employees and their supervisors is highly impactful; problem-solving support at this intimate, interpersonal level communicates care and compassion and may substantially ease employee anxiety.
Monitor and Sustain
As the pandemic wanes, other societal changes are impacting employees at home and in the workplace. To sustain a successful office reopening, maintain awareness of employee needs and offer ongoing support; provide flexibility to adjust to changing conditions. Focus on what matters most to enhance the organization’s ability to attract and retain the people needed to create workplaces that produce desired outcomes.
For assistance with questions related to the complexities of reopening offices and employee reentry anxiety, contact Employers Council.