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So, “Freedom Day” arrived this week and, as a result, many employees are steadily moving back to offices to pick up the old routines – well, not exactly, but something along those lines…

But with the coronavirus case rate figures inching up everywhere just as steadily, it’s perhaps not the ideal backdrop for a minimum-stress return for everyone. The last 17 months have been challenging enough and everyone has had their own unique experiences. So it goes without saying that wellbeing must now take a greater role in face-to-face situations in offices to ensure that employees feel safe, supported and listened to. After all, happy employees are more productive and engaged, which is better for just about every company…

Making the transition

If you’ve been sitting on your bed working on your laptop since March 2020, then getting back into the office will be heavenly, regardless of the risks. But even if you’ve been fortunate enough to work from a dedicated desk at home, you may still be feeling anxious about returning and sharing kitchen/toilet facilities, sitting with numerous others for eight hours each day in a poorly-ventilated room and the spreading of germs by air conditioning units…

What can employers do?

There are all kinds of risks and all kinds of anxieties in the current uncertain situation. Plus, employees are not returning to the same workplaces they left behind last year. Things have changed. Desks will have been rearranged, practices and procedures will be different and covid safety measures will still be in place for many. Some companies will have embraced the WFH experiment and used it as a catalyst to create positive changes for the future, but others will have been just as keen to find the quickest route back to how things were before. So, even from workplace to workplace, things won’t look the same.

That’s why looking after employees’ wellbeing is critical right now. But the key thing for organisations is to make it more than just words. Establishing a wellbeing-friendly office culture is well worth the effort during such an uncertain time.

Some considerations for employers to ease returning employees’ anxieties could be to:

  • Allow flexibility in arrival/departure times across the company.
  • Offer hybrid or remote working.
  • Be aware of employees’ concerns over using public transport, shared facilities and so on.
  • Set rules to prevent out-of-hours emailing and the expectation of instant replies, so everyone has quality downtime.
  • Establish employee networks to ensure everyone has a voice.

Some organisations may also choose to implement some “softer” ways to promote wellbeing in the office, such as:

  • Installing plants to help minimise stress (or allowing employees to bring one of their own. After all, gardening and house plant ownership has seen a huge surge of interest as a therapeutic activity during lockdown).
  • Supplying access to wellness apps – and ensuring that employees will not be reprimanded for “wasting time” using them.
  • Providing access to a company support plan that offers counselling and practical wellbeing advice.
  • Offering in-house (or outside) lunchtime meditation or mindfulness sessions from a qualified practitioner.

Team culture

Each team has its own micro-culture, and this is perhaps the most important point for managing the employee transition back to work, as it’s the place where employees’ office lives are lived.

Nurturing the autonomy and trust workers have had during the WFH period is really important. Now that team members are back in the room, it’s important to keep that going; they have been trusted over the last year and the majority delivered. They can do it!

Ensuring a positive culture by acknowledging good work, recognising contribution and achievement gives everyone validation – even just saying “thank you” goes a long way. The idea is to create a steady, supportive environment; not to be introducing measures that create a competitive atmosphere.

We can all be better listeners and it doesn’t take too much effort. Some people will need to share what they’ve been through and if managers and colleagues can provide that listening ear, so much the better.

But even just mixing things up a little can have a positive effect on wellbeing. Something as simple as having a team meeting in green space instead of in an office can really give everyone a lift.

Moving forward together

Looking after employees’ wellbeing is a long game. It’s not a quick fix issue by any means, especially in the situation we find ourselves in now. For employees, simply knowing that employers are actively committed to their wellbeing is a great start. And let’s not forget that it is also a team initiative: looking out for and supporting each other. That means sharing successes and burdens; something everyone will appreciate when it comes to sharing their own!

Further reading

How to avoid catching and spreading coronavirus – NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/how-to-avoid-catching-and-spreading-coronavirus-covid-19/

How should I protect myself from Covid now? – BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-57087517

Technology tips to help your staff feel safe at work – CMI: https://www.managers.org.uk/knowledge-and-insights/article/technology-tips-to-help-your-staff-feel-safe-at-work/