[Workplace Whiz, ep. 08] How to Convert Return-to-Office Anxiety into Positive Change

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In today’s evolving corporate landscape, the conversation around returning to the office (RTO) is at the forefront of corporate strategy. The shift back to the office was met with mixed reactions, and for many, caused significant anxiety. 

In this blog, we explore the insights shared by Bex Moorhouse, founder and director of Invigorate Spaces Ltd, a wellbeing consultancy that breathes life into the corporate world through careful curation of workplace culture, environment, and experiences. With over 20 years of experience in creating and managing exceptional workspaces and wellbeing programs, she helps clients normalize wellbeing and attract and retain the best talent. In an insightful discussion with Cosmin Patlageanu, Bex shares her insights on how to approach this challenge thoughtfully and constructively.

Let’s dive in!

Understanding Return-to-Office Anxiety

Return to office anxiety is a common feeling among employees who are transitioning back to the office after working remotely during the pandemic. This anxiety can stem from a variety of sources, including feeling like they have no control or input over the return to office policy, sudden changes in work arrangements, and concerns about the safety and comfort of the office environment.

Understanding the nuances of return-to-office anxiety is essential for fostering a supportive work environment. Bex identifies the sudden implementation of policies and the exclusion of employees from decision-making processes as primary contributors to this anxiety. She notes, “When colleagues feel like they’ve not been part of the decision, that’s when anxiety can get worse as a result of being called back to the office.” Such actions can create a sense of powerlessness among employees, leading to heightened stress and discomfort with the transition.

To address these concerns, Bex advocates for a more measured and inclusive approach.

Involvement and Empowerment

Involving employees in the return-to-office strategy is the advice Bex gives to organizations who want to minimize the shock and resistance that can accompany sudden shifts in workplace policy. Bex argues that giving employees a voice in the process not only reduces anxiety but also enhances their commitment to the organization. She notes, “It’s about having that conversation and building out what the new approach is but doing it together.” This collaborative approach ensures that employees feel they have a say in their work environment and schedule, which can significantly reduce anxiety and resistance.

She recommends that policy changes be introduced gradually, allowing employees to acclimate to new expectations and routines at a comfortable pace. Furthermore, flexibility in choosing work days and hours can further empower employees, leading to a more positive office culture. Bex advises, “Empower as much as possible. So, it might be saying that you need to be in the office twice a week, but you can decide which day that is.”

Transparent communication is another key aspect of a successful RTO policy. Keeping employees informed and involved in the conversation about office policies not only helps in alleviating anxiety but also builds trust within the organization. When employees are part of the dialogue, they are more likely to feel valued and understood, which can significantly improve their outlook on returning to the office.


10 Change Management and Communication Expert Takeaways

Returning to the office is a big change that requires proper change management and communication. According to Bex, “Change management is so important because people need to understand and have the time and the handholding really to ask questions and to challenge like, well, why do I need to go in and have those conversations?”

Here are some tested change management and communication approaches that Bex recommends: 

  • Just as meetings require proper preparation to be effective, the return to the office needs clear communication about expectations and outcomes. Employees should understand what is expected of them when they return to the office.
  • Tailored strategies are more effective than blanket approaches. Surveys and focus groups can help understand employee preferences and shape policies that consider individual needs.
  • Sudden policy changes that do not allow employees adequate time to adjust are not welcome. Bex advocates for a gradual approach, saying, “Going to the office, setting up things, connection points when you get to the office, like pre-setting meetings or breakfast or lunches… to encourage people to come back as well, I think is a really nice approach.”
  • Employers should give enough notice and explanation to their employees before asking them to come back to the office. “You need to understand that everybody’s going through the change curve at different stages.” This understanding allows for a more empathetic approach to implementing new policies.
  • Organizations should balance business needs with individual well-being. Regular well-being check-ins by managers can help address personal challenges and support employees through changes. Often, well-being can also be highly individualized, because “For some people, being around lots of people… can be quite challenging.”
  • Managers should role model the behaviors they expect from their teams, such as taking lunch breaks and engaging in meaningful conversations, to set a positive example in the office. “If a manager comes in, doesn't talk with their team, sits in meeting rooms all day… They need to role-model meaningful conversations and have those moments that really matter in the office.”
  • Training and support are also key components of a successful transition to a hybrid work environment. Bex suggests, “Employers should provide training and support to their employees on how to work effectively in a hybrid environment.” This includes familiarizing staff with new technologies, flexible work practices, and maintaining productivity and collaboration across different work settings. 
  • Managerial training as well is of main importance: there’s a gap in training for managing hybrid teams, which wasn’t anticipated before the widespread adoption of hybrid work environments. Proper training for managers is crucial for effective team management and conducting successful hybrid meetings.
  • Trust is a foundational element in remote management. Without trust, managers may jump to negative conclusions if immediate responses aren’t received, leading to unnecessary tension within the team.
  • Finally, adopting the practices of other companies without considering one’s unique organizational context is a trap for many companies. “It seems to be that the Google’s etc. are asking people to come back and therefore everybody sort of starts doing the same thing to follow suit,” she warns. Bex strongly cautions against blindly adopting the practices of other companies without considering the specific needs and preferences of their own teams. 

Maximizing the Office Experience

Leveraging the benefits of in-person work while acknowledging the benefits of remote work is an argument employers should use more often. One of the recognized advantages of being in the office is that it fosters collaboration and creativity. As Bex notices it, “The office is more than a place of work; it’s where the magic of face-to-face collaboration brings ideas to life.” Face-to-face interactions can resolve issues more quickly and foster a sense of community. People enjoy the social aspects of office life, such as shared meals and casual encounters that aren’t possible remotely.

For that to happen, the guest suggests several strategies:

  • Physically transform your office: the office space is evolving to accommodate activity-based working. Ergonomic setups like sit-stand desks and various types of spaces to suit different personalities and work styles are becoming essential.
  • Investing in making the office space not only functional but also inviting and comfortable, accommodating a variety of activities and work styles: “It’s about curating an environment that resonates with the diverse personalities and roles within a company.”
  • Utilizing office time for activities that inherently benefit from direct interaction: “There are certain things that just work better when you’re together in person,” she explains. “Onboarding new starters, conducting wellbeing check-ins, and performance reviews are all enhanced by the nuances of face-to-face communication.”
  • Building a cohesive team culture through social events: “Creating moments for connection and celebration within the office can significantly boost morale and a sense of belonging,” Bex remarks. Returning to the office allows employees to reconnect with colleagues from different teams, strengthening the sense of belonging to a larger community.

The Role of Technology

Technology plays a crucial role in supporting the return to office process by enhancing the user experience and making the transition to the office easier. It should be implemented with the goal of simplifying the transition and supporting employees’ work styles, enhance the user experience and integrate seamlessly with existing systems without overwhelming users with complexity.

Bex says, "I'm a massive advocate of technology, but I'm a massive advocate of technology that's thought of through the user experience. So that whole UX design is so important because I think whilst technology is great, like say, for example, you have a desk booking system or something like that, for people who are commuting in they need that security to know that the desk is there, etc. “

She gives some practical examples that can aid in this transition:

  • Desk booking systems that provide employees with the security of knowing they have a designated workspace when they come into the office, which is especially important when transitioning to activity-based working environments.
  • Meeting rooms should be equipped with technology that allows remote participants to feel as included as those physically present. This includes having dual screens for sharing content and seeing remote participants, as well as someone to monitor and manage the virtual aspects of the meeting.
  • Environmental controls: Bex envisions a workplace where technology allows employees to personalize their environment, such as adjusting the temperature or desk height through a smartphone app, making the space as comfortable and conducive to work as possible.

Bex’s vision for technology in the workplace is one where it serves to remove friction rather than add to it, creating a smooth and enjoyable experience for employees. She states, “Unfortunately, a lot of the technologies that we do see rolled out, they add a bit of friction rather than supporting the experience.”

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Practical Tips for a Positive Adoption of RTO Policy

Bex provides several pieces of advice for managing the return to office strategy. Some of her suggestions include: 

  • Align the office with company vision: “Review the environment and match and hopefully check that it matches whatever the company vision is whatever the company mission statement is and make sure it’s aligned.” Bex advises employers to make the office space more attractive and comfortable for their employees and design it to support different types of activities and personalities. She says, "I think it's really important to look at the office and see if it fits those reasons. So it might be, you know, say, for example, trying to think of a scenario, say, for example, you are a company that is all about the community and inviting the community into the space, etc. That makes logical sense to have a physical space where a community can come in and everyone can, you know, connect with your colleagues and your workmates etc."
  • Engage in open dialogue and involve colleagues in the decision-making process. Bex argues that one of the main sources of anxiety for employees is feeling like they have no control or input over the return to office policy. She suggests that employers should involve their colleagues in the conversation and have a collaborative approach to decide how and when to work in the office. “Have those conversations with colleagues to explain why you’re doing this, why you want people back and what you believe the benefits are going to be, definitely have that two-way conversation and listen to colleagues if there’s any concerns and try to overcome any concerns.”
  • Rework the physical office space: “I’ve very limited success has been when companies have tried to just get people back in the office but they’ve made no changes to the floor plate in the office, so I also think that you know this whole process also needs a rework usually of the physical office to make sure that it’s fit for purpose in this new way of working.”
  • Implement necessary technology thoughtfully: “And again, the technology. What technology do you need to actually make it all happen and work? And make sure that you get change management in bed with the project really early to make sure that there’s somebody there to support implementation of the new technology, implementation of the new workspaces, and how things are going to work longer term.”
  • Consider the project’s scope and stakeholder alignment: “It should be treated like any big project that you would roll out. And you need stakeholder alignment across the whole business. So, this isn’t a HR project and a facilities project. This is a senior stakeholder of an organization project.” So, alignment of all stakeholders is crucial.

Embracing Return to Office Positively

The journey back to the office is not just a physical move; it’s an emotional and cultural shift that requires careful navigation. For employers, this is an opportunity to listen, adapt, and lead with intention. It’s about crafting an office that resonates with the values of your team, leveraging technology that simplifies workflows, and fostering a culture where every individual feels valued and heard. By involving employees in the decision-making process, respecting individual needs, and communicating effectively, companies can turn RTO anxiety into an opportunity for growth and positive change.

For a deeper dive into these topics and to hear more from Bex Moorhouse, tune into the full podcast episode available on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify!

Topics: Workplace experience, Podcast

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