After months out of the office, I know that many business leaders are itching to get back to work. They crave the familiarity of the office set-up, with all the members of their team around them, and the camaraderie and connection that brings about. For a lot of people in business, there’s nothing like all being in the office when the going’s good.
But for those in your team, it might be different. Polls and surveys show that a lot of people are feeling ‘return-to-work anxiety’. Now that we have some clarity around how and when the lockdown might end and when we all might return to work, there have—understandably—been some mixed feelings in the air. Some habits are deliberate—a golfer practices a swing hundreds of times to make a habit out of that technique—but some aren’t. We’ve all, whether we’ve tried to or not, made a habit of the way we’ve worked during lockdown. And that means that going back to the office isn’t really ‘going back’ to doing anything. It’s doing something completely new.
The most important thing to bear in mind is sensitivity. Business owners have to have empathy for their teams. But the practical parts of returning to work also matter massively when thinking about the emotions at work within the team. I don’t have all the answers. In a situation like this, who does? But I do know that there’s no one-size-fits-all with something like these, and business owners need to think about returning to the office in the context of their unique business’s structure and goals. Is your office big or small? How is it set up? Are your team based nearby or far away? If you’re based in Shoreditch and half your team is outside London, the commute alone could make the daily lives of your employees a real battle.
It’s also useful to think about whether going back to the office is the right move for you. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if your team members return to the office and have to sit apart from one another, you might still have some physical distance but also social and emotional distance, which many businesses have been alleviating through one-to-one video chats, virtual team-bonding sessions and more. And I think here businesses can really benefit from talking to one another. Just as it was important for businesses to cooperate rather than compete at the beginning of the lockdown, it’s important they cooperate, rather than compete, to find the best ways to go back to work. If in doubt, it’s always worth listening and reading about what others are doing, and comparing different models.
What we can be sure of is the value of communication at a time like this. It’s not just about talking to your team, but encouraging your team to talk to you. We’ve introduced a special ‘COVID-19 edition’ of the anonymous survey we run throughout the year so we can get a sense of how the team is feeling around this period about returning to work. An open and honest dialogue removes ambiguity and goes a long way to getting rid of anxiety.
But change is often hard. And we forget sometimes that working from home is no longer the ‘change’, but the new normal. That’s the way it’s been for months. Now things are changing again, and that means uncertainty and anxiety at a time when there’s already plenty of both to spare. The order of the day is neither to rush everyone back into an office nor to drag your heels. It’s to consider the particular structure and needs of your business and the personalities and circumstances of your team, and to work with each other, as well as with other business owners, to come up with the right solutions.