During the COVID-19 pandemic, female wears masks to attend work. On the door of the are signs encouraging mask wearing a social distancing.
You can address your employees' anxieties about returning to work with these best practices to help them feel more comfortable with your new office policies. — Getty Images/ SDI Productions

After COVID-19 vaccines became more widespread in 2021, many companies started transitioning back to a full-time or hybrid in-office work schedule; however, with COVID-19 variants like Delta and Omicron, it’s possible many employees feel anxious about returning to the office.

For employers facing this challenge, here are some best practices for easing employee anxiety brought about by returning to the office as well as strategies to communicate new policies or procedures you design to keep workers safe.

Identify the root cause of the anxiety

Before you can help employees manage their office-induced anxiety, you have to identify its source. Anxiety about returning to the office takes many forms; perhaps it’s logistical anxiety, social anxiety, professional anxiety or worry about routine disruption. It can be difficult to isolate one root cause of anxiety, so open a dialogue with your employees in ways they feel comfortable discussing their workplace stress. You can even create an anonymous form to give employees the freedom to speak their minds without fear of personal judgment or retaliation.

Offer tools and resources for coping with anxiety

You can help ease anxiety in the office by educating your employees on symptoms such as panic attacks, disassociation, or general stress as well as coping strategies. Your employees can practice coping strategies at their desks or at dedicated meditation time in the office. These tools can range from simple breathing activities to body scans and grounding processes.. With resources focused on mental health and wellness, you can help employees communicate their anxiety and work through it to better focus themselves on the task at hand.

[Read more: 5 Ways to Make Returning to Work Efficient and Productive]

Be as flexible as possible

The pandemic taught the business world how to work differently, and many employees got used to remote work. In fact, the vast majority never want to go back to a full-time in-office schedule. A 2021 FlexJobs survey found that 98% of employees who went remote during COVID-19 either want to stay remote permanently (65%) or have a hybrid work option (33%). Moreover, nearly 60% of survey respondents “would absolutely look for a new job” if they couldn’t continue working remotely in their current position.

If your business can operate fully remotely, it may be in your company’s best interest to be flexible about when and how often your workers need to be in the office. Flexible policies will make your employees feel more valued and also allow them to create a work schedule that is optimized for their life when attempting to return to in-person work.

[Read more: How to Develop a Hybrid Office Policy]

Take the time to explain what might change about their work schedules and expectations (if anything will change), and be willing to have conversations with employees who have questions.

Communicate effectively

Some of your employees may be upset or confused as to why they have to return to the office at all. It's important to clearly communicate your reasoning for returning to the office. This establishes a clear and transparent dialogue between senior leadership and your employees. It also shows employees that there is a reason and decision-making process behind this move and that it wasn't made just to get bodies back into the office. Take the time to explain what might change about their work schedules and expectations (if anything will change), and be willing to have conversations with employees who have questions.

Ensure your team understands vaccine, testing or masking protocols

For many employees, returning to the office means putting themselves and their families at risk of contracting COVID-19, even if they are vaccinated. If your business has implemented any policies about vaccinations, testing or wearing masks in the office, communicating these initiatives clearly and frequently may help put employees at ease about being around their co-workers.

Meet your employees where they are and ask for feedback

Your employees are likely experiencing different levels of anxiety depending on their personal circumstances and concerns. That's why you need to meet employees where they are and include everyone in the conversation whenever possible. When crafting policies to help reduce anxiety, allow employees to express their concerns and questions. Take their feedback into consideration and ask them what, if anything, might make their return to the office easier, and offer compromises when possible.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published January 10, 2022