Want your workers back in the office? Here’s how employers can help.

In the twelve months since the tentative, phased lifting of lockdown, the return to the office has been slow for some employees and non-existent for others. What can employers do to ease workers’ concerns when asking them back to the workplace?

The FT reported in April that UK offices are operating at around 25% of capacity, and while some employers have embraced the business opportunities of WFH and hybrid working, for others those models don’t fit.

Regardless of their employers’ ideals, a survey this month found that UK workers remain resistant to a wholesale return to pre-pandemic norms. 47% said they were willing to ‘walk’ from their job if flexibility wasn’t offered, rising to 60% in 25–34-year-olds.

So, that leaves employers with a tough proposition. What can you do now to make your office a more attractive place to work, or to ease the legitimate concerns workers might feel after a 2-year hiatus from the workplace? We’ve got tips to help.

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Ensure your employees’ voices are heard

Forcing reluctant employees back to the office could harm your relationship with them and encourage them to look for more flexible options elsewhere. So first, find out what their concerns are.

Ensure all voices are heard, regardless of their pay grade. Set up a forum, such as an anonymous staff survey, where people can speak their mind without fear of recrimination. Acknowledge that it’s OK if they feel anxious about returning to the office. And act on their concerns – visibly. It will help to instil a sense of trust that you have their safety and wellbeing at heart.

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Continue COVID-security

‘The new normal’ means ‘living with COVID’, and while the virus commands fewer headlines than before, still thousands of people get infected each day, and hundreds still die from its effects.

During lockdowns, the nation adopted a number of simple health and safety measures to ‘stop the spread’ – thorough handwashing; using hand sanitiser; regularly disinfecting workspaces, and isolating and getting tested if symptomatic, for example.

Continuing such measures at work will help returning staff to feel more secure, and encourage people to stay mindful of colleagues’ safety, while acknowledging that we’re at a stage with the virus where stronger restrictions are less often needed.

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A phased return

Slowly increasing the time your employees spend in the workplace is likely to make them feel more comfortable with each passing visit:

“The first visit could be for a team meeting, then working one day a week from the office, and gradually start to increase the number of office days so people can find their way through all the concerns they have”, suggests Loretta Outhwaite, interim director of finance at Sussex Health and Care Partnership ICS in Financial Management.

Asking staff to attend for collaborative activities where there’s a clear purpose to ‘being together’ – whiteboard sessions, team meetings, or training – will further instil trust. You could also use the opportunity to hold one-to-ones and wellbeing check-ins, making the office synonymous with support.


Consider the commute

It's possible that your employees are equally concerned about their journey to work as being in the workplace itself - particularly if it involves close proximity to others on public transport, such as the train, tube or bus.

So, are there ways you can ease their concerns? Could you make more parking available, for example? Or strike a deal with a local car park to offer a discount to your employees?

Depending on your location, a bike-to-work scheme might be appropriate, with the added benefit of boosting mental and physical wellbeing, which many workers report has depleted while WFH.


Be mental health aware

Look out for signs that people are struggling – either specifically with the return to the workplace, or generally. (We describe some of the symptoms that Mental Health First Aiders are trained to to spot in this article.) Intervening early can fend off worse problems down the line.  

Also, consider people’s personal circumstances. McKinsey found that, after the risk to personal safety (45%), the second highest concern for workers returning to the office was potentially catching the virus and passing it to ‘unvaccinated or at-risk children and loved ones (29%)’. So, you might try a rota system that keeps the number of on-site workers to the minimum necessary at any one time.

Look at absence trends too. Lower attendance and performance often indicate mental health issues, which can manifest as other symptoms, such as gastrointestinal problems or migraines. A benefit of GoodShape’s nurse service is its accuracy in triaging the reasons for absence, helping individuals to get the right support earlier, and giving organisations powerful data to address the real issues affecting workers.

Whether your organisation wants employees back in the workplace because of practicality, principle, or culture, it’s best to handle the transition sensitively. Take the right approach, and you’ll not only reduce anxiety, but return to a feeling of normality sooner, instil trust among colleagues, increase job satisfaction – and reduce flight risk.


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