Careers advice: Returning to the office - managing yourself and others

26 August 2021

Many companies are contemplating a full or partial return to the office. As they consider this, their leaders tend to think of employees in two opposing groups: those who are eager to return and those who are opposed. However, it’s important to recognise that even some of the people who are keen to return to a shared workspace may nevertheless feel some anxiety about doing so, and need extra support to navigate the transition in terms of their productivity, energy levels and emotional control.

In the long-term, leaders and managers who demonstrate adaptability and resilience to the transition (and help others on their teams to do the same) will find this helps their progress in the workplace too.

Here are some key things you can do which will help your employees, and you, navigate the transition back to the office:

Ensure both you and your company ‘over-communicate’ about the transition

After nearly 18 months of disruption to their working lives due to the pandemic, the return to the office represents another major change in employees’ lives. It may also be marked by significant change to the workplace from the situation pre-pandemic with a move to hybrid working.

You probably began conversations and consultation about returning to the office some time ago, but as the date for return approaches, now is the time to ensure that your employees and direct reports are given detailed information about how the organisation has changed, and how hybrid working will work, particularly around expectations of presence in the office and demonstrating that the trust shown during the pandemic will continue. In addition to his, sharing office safety protocols will help allay health concerns and enable nervous employees to visualise what their return might be like.

Allow employees to continue to express their concerns

Many companies will have begun a dialogue prior to return to the office, however, recognise that during this time of change, people will benefit from continuing to talk openly about what they are experiencing. Listening with calm and sincere curiosity, without attempting to fix everything, and escalating valid concerns will be valuable in helping people transition and reinforce trust between you. Continue to look out for signs of impact to your employees’ wellbeing and make referrals as appropriate to employee support services.

Encourage and enable employees to re-establish their connections

After such a long period of working from home, some employees feel profoundly disconnected from others. This is not just a personal challenge - it may affect their performance (and motivation) at work because studies have shown that human connection helps people tolerate stress and recover from it. Many employees reconsidered their goals and priorities during the pandemic, with many considering leaving their job and others preferring to continue with hybrid working, and it’s far more tempting to leave a job in which one feels disconnected. Conversely, studies have shown that having strong social connections at work is associated with greater engagement. Whilst you can’t force these connections, you can create an environment in which it’s easier for employees to reconnect. Small gestures such as hosting ‘back to work’ events or regular group lunches make a difference, as well as encouraging your employees to help one another out with their work.

Remind them of their purpose and value

Numerous studies of employee wellbeing during the pandemic have demonstrated that Covid-19 has caused employees to reflect on their purpose in life, with many saying that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic.

Individual purpose can be thought of as an enduring, overarching sense of what matters in a person’s life. There are clear patterns that help employers categorise what people find meaningful but ultimately each person’s purpose will be as varied as the individuals themselves. Such findings have implications for your company’s talent-management strategy and its bottom line. People who live their purpose at work are more productive than people who don’t. They are also healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay at the company. Moreover, when employees feel that their purpose is aligned with the organisation’s purpose, the benefits expand to include stronger employee engagement, heightened loyalty, and a greater willingness to recommend the company to others.

Here are four tips for helping your employees find or regain their sense of purpose on returning to the office:

  1. Remind your employees of your organisation’s purpose and how their contribution counts towards this, as reflections on the bigger picture can help inspire a sense of purpose.
  2. Connect with your employees - are you a compassionate leader or manager? Do you share your thoughts openly (and appropriately) with your team? Is your team comfortable sharing personal things with you? Few things are more personal than one’s purpose in life, and if psychological safety is low between you and your employees, then you’re unlikely to discover what gives them a sense of purpose.
  3. Help people live their purpose at work - by encouraging your employees to identify their motivations, you can help them find more personal meaning in their day-to-day work, and enable them to feel more fulfilled. This is likely to lead to greater engagement and retention, and ultimately benefit the company too.
  4. Remember to offer specific, sincere praise. This is a powerful way to allay employees’ concerns about whether you and other colleagues remember the value they bring.

Monitor and regulate your own emotions

The pressure of being responsible for the changes ahead is no mean feat and whilst some leaders don’t make time to take care of their own wellbeing, the research on this is clear: leaders who consistently sacrifice their welfare to that of others are vulnerable to emotional and physical exhaustion which impairs thinking and decision-making. Once a leader understands how significantly their wellbeing affects their leadership and decisions - as well as the mood of their employees, who watch their signals closely - it’s easier for many to prioritise taking time to re-set. A few relatively simple ways are taking walks, blocking the calendar on particular days or times, and engaging a mentor or coach who can provide support and another perspective.

As the world emerges from the pandemic, leaders and managers will observe a range of reactions in their employees, from relief and excitement to anxiety and hesitation about the period of change ahead. With the above strategies, you can be prepared for your employees’ mixed emotions and help ease their, and your, transition back to the office.

If you want to continue your professional development, or upskill to remain competitive in the job market, WBS Executive Education offers the Warwick Executive Diplomas including one in Organisational Change. These are a suite of flexible programmes, designed to offer immediate impact and long-term development for both individuals and organisations, and which attract a 25% alumni discount.

If you are a member of the WBS alumni community and you need support with your career or professional development, please contact