Coming back into the office after the pandemic has created new challenges for managers seeking to maintain a positive office environment and strong corporate culture. Another way to put it: seeing each other face to face again can feel plain awkward.
In 2019, a handshake was a simple gesture universally accepted, exchanged without a second thought. Flash forward to today, and the thought of a handshake could send some employees’ heart rates skyrocketing. According to a recent report, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased stress levels for a third of all Americans. As we navigate this “now normal” of socially distanced office life in a period of uncertainty, things can feel awkward as we meet in person after months of virtual interaction. Here are a few tips to ease anxiety and dust off those rusty social skills as we return to the office.
One-on-one meetings with your team are a good first step to ensure a smooth transition into the office for each employee. These individual meetings should not be purely transactional. Our shared virtual experiences have provided glimpses into people’s worlds outside of the office. We have seen each other (and our kids, pets, kitchens, closets, etc.) in our “natural” habitats. In addition to discussing each employee’s work plan and performance, managers should make time to discuss their emotional and mental health. If talking about emotions feels awkward, start by sharing your own experiences and challenges. Research has shown that authentic leadership helps build trust. It’s okay to be vulnerable. Vulnerability isn’t weakness but rather shows that you are human and helps connect you to others. To be authentic and demonstrate authentic leadership, you need to be vulnerable. When employees feel safe talking about how the pandemic has impacted their mental health and home life, managers can better understand their in-office needs. In the post-COVID workplace, creating emotional space for employees to express themselves is just as important as creating physical space for them to work.
Once you’ve addressed each employee’s needs, slowly ease into small group gatherings. Meetings and events should have detailed agendas so each staff member knows exactly what to expect. Since social anxiety thrives on uncertainty, structure is key to reducing stress. In planning the agenda, ensure you allocate time and space for connection. As colleagues reunite, there will be “catching up to do.” Embrace the opportunity for your team to re-introduce themselves. Remember the goal of a first back-to-office meeting can be two-fold: bringing people together and solving that critical business problem.
Expect the Unexpected
Just as everyone reacted differently at the start of the pandemic, individuals’ reactions to the late stages of COVID will vary. Managers should prepare for a wide range of emotions and behaviors at the office. As one expert described, “Privation sends our brains into survival mode, which dampens our ability to recognize and appropriately respond to the subtleties and complexities inherent in social situations. Instead, we become hypervigilant and oversensitive.” Employees might overreact to something you find trivial or be completely unfazed by a major announcement. It may take months for employees to adjust to the office environment again.
Social anxiety can present itself in a number of different ways, including everything from rigid body posture to difficulty holding a conversation. For example, a manager might notice a teammate scurry away from the break room when other employees enter or opt to email their recommendations for a project rather than participate in a meeting. In contrast, office extroverts might be overly eager to reestablish desk-side chitchat or organize social events. In these scenarios, managers should be patient and allow employees to initially engage in ways that feel comfortable and be available to support them when they need it. Don’t forget to also be prepared for your own unexpected responses. Allow yourself the same patience and seek support as needed.
And even when things do start to feel “normal” again, don’t expect employees (or yourself!) to endure an eight-hour workday with the same stamina they did before COVID. Social exhaustion and burnout are common as we process the stimuli of the office again. Try to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings and make sure to give employees breaks to rest. As employees slowly start to build up their “social endurance” again, they should be able to remain more productive and positive for a full day of work.
It is important to acknowledge the challenges brought on by COVID and embrace the opportunity for a reset. The literal and figurative re-opening of the doors can be leveraged to reinvigorate employees and reestablish or redefine your corporate culture. After more than a year of being mostly empty, your physical office is now a blank slate ready to support the working model and culture most suitable to your path forward.
Initial steps like conducting an employee survey can measure staff engagement, loyalty, and accountability. Managers are often surprised to see their company through their employees’ eyes, especially after a significant event such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Working with third-party experts can help you get a clearer picture of your organization’s strengths and limitations and identify opportunities to strengthen the commitment to your mission and values. Depending on the type of work model your organization implements, change management guidance can help managers and employees adopt new processes with less stress and more success.
Returning to the office is an opportunity to re-recruit your existing staff and allow them to provide input to shape your organization’s future. Whether or not your team is fully back in the office, working remotely for the long-term, or embracing a hybrid model, it’s obvious the pandemic has changed the professional setting for the foreseeable future. As a leader, you can take advantage of this change to strengthen your company and support your employees’ needs — even if it feels a bit awkward at first.
© Copyright 2021. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of Ankura Consulting Group, LLC., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.