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How To Manage a Return to the Office During COVID-19

It’s an unprecedented time in history.  Virtually overnight, many people went from seeing their coworkers daily to setting up shop at home.  People met this mandated standard with a variety of reactions: some were thrilled to have the chance to work from home, some had never worked from home before and didn’t know how to adjust, and some entered a new level of chaos, as their home life and work life collided.

Let’s not forget the impact to your life.  You’ve also been through a number of changes and had to navigate the challenges of leading and motivating a team virtually.  That is not an easy task.  

Now you’re being asked to write the rulebook for returning to work when there’s still so much uncertainty about the future.  

Be gentle with yourself, none of this is easy.  

But also, don’t let this opportunity pass you by.  This is a great chance to revisit team dynamics and introduce new practices (and retire old ones that aren’t working).  

This is a rare chance to press the “reset” button.

Read on to learn how to manage a return to the office post COVID-19.

First: Acknowledge the Challenge of the Past few Months

Trying to return to business as usual without addressing the worldwide change we all just experienced would be a huge mistake.  

People’s lives have inevitably been impacted and depending on the amount of negative change they have endured and how resilient they are in processing their emotions, you’ll see a varying degree of temperaments as your people start to trickle back into the office.

Carve aside time to address your team and gauge where they are and what they need to make this transition successful.  

A three-minute conversation that begins with, “how are you?” is not adequate to address the level of stress your employees have managed over the past few months.  

A drastic shake up like the one we’ve just experienced requires more to get your team back to safety, security, and productivity.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a cornerstone finding in the field of psychology, helps to explain why.

According to Maslow, everyone is at a different stage in this pyramid, and this shifts over time depending on circumstances.  Biologically, people’s mental capacity to focus on being creative and productive at work will be compromised if they’re stuck worrying about their needs at the bottom of the pyramid.  

Consider appropriate ways to ensure your employees have what they need from their workplace to allow them to rise to self-actualization- where they can operate at their peak performance. 

An article published by McKinsey shared figures from a poll administered to over 1,000 people at end of March 2020 to gauge anxiety and depression.  Of those polled:

63% of those whose job hadn’t been impacted by COVID-19 reported feeling either depressed, anxious, or both.  

The numbers were vastly higher for those whose job had been reduced or eliminated during this time.  That means over half your employees have likely suffered with higher than normal anxiety and depression.

Now that you understand the psychology and statistics behind the need to make sure your employees are ok and the prevalence of mental anguish as a result of COVID-19, let’s talk about the right way to address your direct reports to make this return to the office productive.

Now is a good time to set up time to talk to your people to check in on them and gauge what they need to feel safe and supported as they return to the office.

When you’re hesitant to ask your direct reports what they need

Many managers hesitate to actively ask their employees what they need because:

  1. Their management plate is already full and they don’t have capacity to add to it  
  2. They don’t want to create a co-dependent environment where people aren’t actively looking to solve their own problems and they rely on management for an unfeasible amount of help 
  3. There’s a fear that if you open the door to offer help, you’ll unintentionally create an environment that enables complainers and foster an environment where people are looking to constantly come to you to air the dirty laundry

All of the above are very valid concerns.  And when managers don’t approach this in the right way, they can most definitely enable the above.  

Not addressing the mental impact leaves you looking unsympathetic and tone deaf.  Addressing it in the wrong way may as well have you replacing your “manager” title with therapist or HR.   So how do you do it the right way?

Set up one-on-one Meetings and a Team Meeting

As a best practice, anytime you’re delivering or inquiring about sensitive information that impacts the entire team, the best way to approach this is:

  1. Via a one-on-one meeting with each employee on your team- this will allow them to share information they may not feel comfortable sharing in a group setting
  2. Via a team-wide meeting- this displays your interest in team unity and also helps to ensure that everyone hears the same high-level messages 

One-on-one meetings

During these meetings, shut down any technology that might interupt and divert your attention.  Use this time to acknowledge your report as a person and let them know you care about their wellbeing.  People who feel acknowledged, valued and validated will go the extra mile when you need it most.

Team-Wide Meeting

Cover the basics of how the company is proactively prioritizing the safety and security of all the employees.

Be sure to address what new practices the company has adopted to decrease the spread of COVID-19. Discuss the new cleaning protocol, the spacing between desks, the company policy on mask wearing.  Again, think about ways to ease people’s minds so they can move up Maslow’s pyramid to optimize their performance.

It’s also a good idea to acknowledge that people’s lives likely haven’t gone back to normal.  

Schools across the country and summer programs are varying in their approach to reopening so any employees who have school-aged children may still be juggling schedules.  Also, people are still contracting COVID-19 so your employees may be impacted if they have to care for family members who become sick.  

Be sensitive to all the disruptive factors that your employees are still juggling and let them know your preferred method to manage these realities while still having to meet deliverables (i.e.- if your schedule has to shift to accommodate caring for a child or elderly parent, just communicate your working hours on this shared drive I created for our team).

Also, if you have extenuating circumstances as a result of the continuing pandemic, share it with your employees. The more human you can be, the easier it will be for your employees to relate to you. Plus, you should be looking out for your own health and wellness. That will benefit everyone, including yourself.

After you’ve finished all your conversations, carve aside time to think about what the top three needs are of your people and an action plan to address those needs.

Do they need help processing the roller coaster that COVID-19 has been?

Offer to invest in an executive coach or an app that offers on-demand therapy sessions to provide support for those who need help processing their emotions.  Also, consider creating an environment that supports employees carving out time to self-care during the day (i.e.- taking walking meetings, windows where no meetings are allowed to be scheduled, etc.).  

Offering access to work out and meditation applications can be a nice offering too but DON’T FORGET to also create an environment where employees feel comfortable prioritizing their personal health.

Do they need flexibility in their schedule because of the continued demands at home?

Find a central location where everyone can post their working hours so co-workers know when they are available.  Also, consider offering a company subsidy for childcare services like Care.com.  It’s likely that many of your employees with kids will still need flexibility to work from home as schools decide not to reopen or reopen with limited schedules.  Create a culture that doesn’t punish employees who have to continue to work from home.

Do they need more time to work/less time in meetings?

Consider ways to cut down on all the meetings while still achieving goals.  A great way to do this is by introducing other ways for your employees to quickly communicate, like using Slack.

You may need to partner with your HR department to address some of the concerns that arise. Be sensitive to the fact the HR is likely navigating a lot of new demands and has several opinions to cater to.  The more you can present the challenge and let them come up the with solution, the better.

Establish New Practices and Ditch the Old Ones That No Longer Work

During this forced time working from home, it’s likely that you’ve discovered some new efficiencies that didn’t exist before. This is a great chance to ditch the old rules/practices that were impeding on progress and embrace new ones.

How do you identify how to operate as a team moving forward?

Do a simple Start, Stop and Continue exercise with your team to understand, now that you all have two working worlds to compare, what new reality you want to create as a team to take the best from both worlds.

This is a lot to throw at one person and it’s unchartered territory.  If you don’t have the bandwidth to handle all of the above or if you would like to partner with an expert who can take this off your plate while you manage everything else, reach out to me and we’ll make sure this process appropriately supports you and your employees to minimize any more disruption and get your team back to a place of safety, security and maximum productivity.

I can help you get a pulse of the organization and also, partner with you to develop a workshop that will optimize this transition while still adhering to your budget.

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