Derek Pangelinan owns Derek Rey Consulting LLC. He is a management/leadership coach for small and medium business owners all across Oregon and Southwest Washington. He runs a variety of workshops to help them build their teams and improve communication and commitment in the workplace.
It’s been busy couple of months for me. In March, I attended a conference in downtown Portland. The conference location was bustling with so many people that I had to watch where I was going. It’s been a couple of years since I—or most of us—have had to worry about that: COVID restrictions gave us more physical space to move about. But now it seems like, other than the ever-present masks, there were no restrictions at all.
In April, one of my favorite events, BizExpo West, offered the option of attending virtually or in-person—more evidence that people are physically back in the office.
For some, this return to work is welcome. For others, it represents a source of concern—or even stress. There are still real anxieties in much of the workforce around staying social-distanced, the message we’ve heard over and over for the past two years.
For example, some of us are out of practice at socializing in the workplace. For introverts like me, this can get overwhelming quickly. Trying to navigate around one another again for the first time in 24 months can get awkward.
And what about wearing masks? We know to follow masking mandates and policies, but when else do we wear them as a gesture of politeness or caring for our fellow coworkers?
For business leaders, managing the confusion and anxiety that is being felt will be of paramount importance if they want their employees to feel safe and experience success as they return to the office. Through talking with clients about the challenges they face with staff returning to the workplace, I’ve compiled some straightforward strategies that can make a difference for both those in management and the people they manage:
• As the state mandates around masks shift, communicate and update your own clear policies about when you expect your employees to wear masks and when it’s their option to wear masks. Be sure to include clear messages in the policy that workplace bullying related masks will not be tolerated.
• Encourage your employees to pay attention to their mental health. Change is difficult and coming back to work is a big change for many. Coming back to work during a pandemic is a change with extra risk. Provide resources (remote counseling, mental health days off, etc.) to ease the transition.
• Adopt daily de-stressing activities. Fifteen-minute morning and afternoon team or group walks can refresh the mind and ease anxiety, making the rest of the workday more productive. A quiet room can help many refocus when overwhelmed. For those who can afford it, bringing a food cart to the workplace can create just the focal point needed to allow people to re-engage socially with one another.
• Hold regular team meetings to make up for the lack of water-cooler talk. Two or three meetings a week may sound like a lot. But if they are short and focused, it’s just enough to reconnect team members with one another and rebuild some of the trust that may have eroded over the last two years.
• If you adopt a more flexible work-from-home work option, create policy and process around accountability for performance. Have clear benchmarks so that those who work in the office know their colleagues working from home are equally contributing to the team and that those who work from home feel confident in their path to contributing to the team. For further reading, an article by Dr. Jeb Hurley called “Decoding the DNA of Hybrid Teams” eloquently explains the balance necessary for teams that blend working remotely and working in the office.
Those who are coming back to work for the first time in two years just want to feel safe and that their employer is mindful of any worries or concerns they are experiencing. A leader who chooses to publicly show support for their people who might be struggling with a return to the workplace can earn loyalty and extra effort from their people.