Helping Employees Return to the Workplace: Leadership Tips

With most of the world beginning to reopen after months of pandemic lockdown, it’s time for businesses to begin implementing their plans for re-entry to the workplace. Among the expert tips: ensure employee safety and emotional well-being, offer flexibility, and communicate effectively.

Employees Should Be Top Priority

While ensuring physical safety is key—with considerations such as scheduling, seating configurations, visitor policies, elevator usage, food delivery—organizations must also take care of their employees’ emotional and psychological health, says a recent article from Harvard Business Review.

HBR offered some advice for reducing employee anxiety:

  • * Make employee well-being your top priority. Employees need reassurance that companies will put their people first whenever possible, especially in difficult times.
  • * Share accurate, timely and transparent information. Engage in open dialogue with employees and be honest about the state of the business.
  • * Employees will feel more comfortable and secure at work if employers follow recommendations from the CDC and other trusted public health experts, such as keeping work areas clean and sanitized, instituting flexible sick leave policies and encouraging sick employees to stay home, and providing personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer.
  • * Managers will need to take greater responsibility for employee well-being—familiarizing themselves with the warning signs of emotional distress, regularly checking in with staff, helping team members understand what is and isn’t within their control, and learning how to triage real-time issues.
  • * Offer flexibility. Many team members may still be caring for children or sick loved ones; others may be too anxious to return to work immediately. Companies that had success with remote work may want to consider either a full transition to work-from-home or at least a hybrid model.

Communication Should Be Clear and Inspiring

Recognizing and addressing the core human emotions of grief, loss and anxiety in the workplace is a chance to rebuild organizational health, productivity and talent retention, says McKinsey & Co.

  • * Leaders need to understand where people are mentally and prepare accordingly. Some will be enthusiastic about returning to the office, while others will not want to venture back yet. Still others may want to re-enter in theory but worry about risks to their health and the safety of their loved ones.Survey employees regularly so you know which camp they fall into.
  • * Leaders need to invest time in cultivating open, compassionate conversations about what has been lost in the pandemic. They should validate that there is an emotional impact and that it can be a topic of discussion in the workplace. Efforts must be authentic—acting empathetic without showing true compassion can make things worse.
  • * Recognize the power of ritual. Rituals create a sense of familiarity and reassurance, reduce stress, and can help mark a new phase in an organization’s life. McKinsey recommends nominating a specific date, or timeframe, that the organization will collectively treat as the start of the “next normal” and around which rituals can be enacted.
  • * Leaders can use this moment to define and demonstrate a common sense of purpose with employees, who will be looking for leadership and ways to engage themselves. Share execution plans broadly with staff to solicit input and engage them on the challenges the organization faces.


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