How to lead a good return to the office

As organisations move back towards in-office working, how can managers best support their staff to make the transition?

Credit: Fauxels (Pexels)
Credit: Fauxels (Pexels)

The past year-and-a-half has presented challenges for voluntary sector managers like no other.

Working from home has become the norm for millions of people across all sectors during the Covid-19 pandemic, not just those working for charities and voluntary organisations.

But now things are changing again.

As the number of people who are fully vaccinated continues to rise, many charities are planning for staff to return to the office.

That brings fresh challenges for managers in terms of how they work to reintegrate staff into office life, with many of them having seen each other only via a computer screen for the past year or more.

Experts say that staff could experience a range of emotions about returning to the office environment, including anxiety, fear or even anger.

One question is the extent to which team dynamics might need rebuilding after a long stint of people working remotely, particularly if there are new faces in teams that are coming together in the same place for the first time.

Prioritise mental health

Ama Afrifa-Tchie, head of people, wellbeing and equity at Mental Health First Aid England, a social enterprise that offers mental health guidance and support, says workers’ mental health should be top of the priority list for charity managers looking at how best to make the transition back to physical workspaces and boost team dynamics.

“Regular wellbeing catch-ups with colleagues are a vital way to support people’s mental health and these will be more important than ever as people return to physical working environments together,” she says.

Creating a safe space for staff to speak openly about their wellbeing will play a crucial role in rebuilding team dynamics after a long period of remote working for many, she says.

“This safe space will help those in need to ask for support if they are experiencing issues such as poor mental health or struggling to manage new ways of working.”

Afrifa-Tchie also suggests making time to socialise with colleagues from across the organisation to help staff see the bigger picture and stay connected.

Coffee mornings, a Friday “happy hour” or a new activity could help teams bond again after periods apart, she says. “Now is the perfect opportunity for employers to evaluate what is working when it comes to employee wellbeing and how to create a ‘culture of care’ and inclusivity in the workplace.

“As we navigate this new world of work, employers should focus on bringing people back together, making human connections and asking their employees what is working for them.”

Consider different experiences

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind, says staff will have different experiences both of working remotely and consequently how they feel about returning to the office.

“It’s clear that remote working comes with some pros and cons – while some staff will be pleased to no longer have long, stressful and expensive commutes, others might be reporting more difficulty establishing a work/life balance, particularly if their home ‘office’ also happens to be their kitchen, living room or bedroom,” she says.

“Employees living alone might be struggling with isolation, while those living in house-shares might be finding it hard to find a quiet and confidential space from which to work.

“Everyone’s situation is different, so managers should avoid making assumptions about how staff feel about returning to their former workplace.”

Mamo says that many charities, including Mind, are planning to adopt a hybrid working model, with staff expected to be based in their formal workplace for at least two days a week, for example.

She says Mind regularly surveys staff across a range of employers and its recent findings had shown that more than 40 per cent of employees thought their mental health had worsened during the pandemic.

“It’s important that employers don’t pressure staff to return to their former workplace before they’re ready,” she says.

Afrifa-Tchie warns “a storm is coming” in terms of people’s wellbeing, and many people could be worried about the shift from remote working to a full-time return to the office.

“For some, the benefit of remote and flexible working has been enormous,” she says.

“With less time spent commuting, people are able to prioritise things like exercise or spending time with their family, and this has benefitted their overall sense of wellbeing.

“It is important, therefore, that employers recognise these benefits and, where possible, build a flexible approach to work.”

Take a flexible approach

To what extent should managers consider mandating structures for new ways of working, for example by setting how many days a week staff should turn up to the office?

Afrifa-Tchie says employers should demonstrate trust in their staff and continue to offer flexible working arrangements wherever possible.

“While this will not be possible for everyone, many people will be looking for employers that can offer the best hybrid working options post-pandemic.

“This may mean allowing staff to work flexible hours in the working day or to split their time between the home and the office to suit their needs.”

She says flexible working arrangements can help employees to better plan their working weeks and feel confident they can adjust their working hours if responsibilities change.

“Employers need to engage, consult and review with staff every step of the way, making the framework for flexible working clear, and talking to individual employees about what works best for them,” she says.

Mamo says good internal communications and regularly checking in with staff to see how they are responding to their return to work will reassure staff that they are being given appropriate time to adjust.

Considering a phased return, adjustments to working hours or the potential to continue working from home can reassure staff that their voices are being heard, she says, adding that many of those staff who commute by bus or train are likely to feel anxious about returning to public transport.

“The provision of showers and secure cycling facilities can help encourage employees who can feasibly commute to their former workplace by bike to do so,” she says.

Mind has also been piloting initiatives including a virtual book club and a “random coffee initiative”, where people are paired for a chat, to help protect the mental health of their employees and promote a healthy workplace.

Mamo notes that income has fallen at most charities as a result of the pandemic, meaning tough spending decisions will need to be made.

“But one area where employers will see a return on investment is when it comes to implementing workplace wellbeing initiatives, with Deloitte UK research finding a return of £5 for every £1 invested,” she says.

“This is because mentally healthy employees are more engaged, more productive, and less likely to need time off sick or leave the organisation altogether.”

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