How to Manage Employee Expectations for Returning to Work

When office workers were sent to work at home back in March 2020, everybody had mixed feelings about it. Some were relieved, some were surprised, many were shocked and confused, and some even rapidly started to regret the change as work from home challenges made themselves clearer. Fast-forward almost two years into the first global COVID-19 lockdown, however, and employee expectations about whether or not they would return to work (in an office) have slightly changed. 

How to handle this? How to manage your team’s expectations for returning to work? 

Read on and find out more.

Why Is It Important to Return to Office?

“Returning to work” has been sort of a leitmotif since the first lockdown restrictions were eased. Yet, almost two years later, many still don’t have a clear strategy on how to make it happen, how to make sure they keep employees on their side in the process, and how to ensure it’s a successful move on all grounds.

It all starts with asking yourself a simple question: why, more exactly, should your workplace strategy include some sort of “return to work” and why managing expectations for employees is such a crucial element in this?

Returning to work is not necessarily a must in terms of productivity. Numerous studies have shown that most employees (and employers) feel that the work from home scenario has helped them boost their productivity.

There are, however, things no video call can replicate. The ideas born in spontaneity among co-workers in an office, the creativity, the jokes, the social element of joining a team of people who work for the same purpose -- those had to take some damage during the “full remote work” phase of this pandemic. 

Some employers are also worried about the burnout that comes with a lack of delimitation between “work time” and “home time”. As more and more employees find themselves sending emails at 10 pm and burning through tasks sometimes too quickly, it’s only a matter of time until many will start feeling the repercussions of “non-stop work”. Going back into the office would provide everyone a little bit more structure and organization in this sense. 

What Do Employees Want from Their Workplaces (in 2021)?

To make employees actually want to return to the office, you need to make sure your entire workplace strategy is built around employee well-being. Asking yourself what employees want from their workplace is, thus, not “just” a matter of making them feel good, but also of retaining them, helping them be more productive, and promoting a healthy work-life balance in general. 

This is not just blabbering. Surveys show that, if forced to return to an office full-time, 60% of employees would either leave their jobs or become less motivated. It makes sense, there are a lot of reasons that make remote and hybrid work a much better experience, from the lack of commute times, to avoiding workmates they don’t really like and saving money. 

At the same time, about half of employees actually do miss face to face interactions and a third are keen to have a lunch or cup of coffee with their workmates. Even so, nearly half of them don’t feel ready to return to the pre-pandemic state of (office work) affairs. 

Under these circumstances, flexibility becomes the key word in mapping and managing expectations for employees returning to work. Hybrid work allows teams to work in a variety of settings (at home, remote, in the office just for a limited amount of time or full-time), enabling both employees and employers to create a workplace strategy that fits...everyone. Want to come into the office for the important meetings? Go ahead. Want to work from home three days a week? Go ahead. A flexible workplace is bound to keep everyone happy. 

...But attracting employees on your side in this endeavor and pushing a little for the “return to work” does need some effort on your behalf. 

What Should a Return to Work Program Include?

Your return to work program is not as much about “how to return to office” as it is about “how to make your employees feel safe, appreciated, and balanced after two years of ups and downs, learnings and successes, and, overall, quite a lot of anxiety regarding the world.”

In other words, creating a return to work program is all about empathy and flexibility. We’ve all been through a lot over the last couple of years, and, as an employer, you want to show your team that they matter, their opinion matters, and that you simply want to make their lives better because they work hard and help the business grow.

That being said, here are some tips you should definitely keep in mind when you create your return to work plan:

Give Them Options

Employees want to feel included in the decisions that affect their working life, both in and outside of working hours. This means that you need to give them the opportunity and tools to be part in making decisions regarding their time off, their shifts, their work location, and what they look like on paper.

Make Social Distancing a Viable Option

Whether we like it or not, the danger that locked us all down in March 2020 is still out there. As such, many people might still feel unsafe in an office. Make sure your office space is planned in such a way that it allows everyone to feel securely distanced from other people. Moreover, make sure you provide employees with all the options to ensure the office space is always disinfected and clean.

Invest in Digital Collaboration Tools

In order to progress forward as a company, you have to implement the tools of the modern office. To this regard, consider modernizing your office spaces and investing in a tool that allows everyone to be part of a team and communicate on a digital level.
Furthermore, don't forget about investing in an office and meeting booking tool as well. This is key to making "hybrid work" actually function for your business, as it will allow over-schedules, flexibility, and good planning on everyone's ends.

Show Empathy and Consideration

In order for your employees to feel comfortable in the office again, you need to show them that they are appreciated and supported. That means giving them enough time to process their return to work if they need it. It also means showing that you genuinely understand what they are going through and providing them all the support they need to make the move a less stressful, more productive one.

Be Clear and Transparent

It's easier to create a plan if you know what your goals are as well as the resources you have available. Because of this, try to create a plan that is clear and that is going to help everyone involved understand what is going on. This way, your partners will be even more open to participating in the process, and you will be able to efficiently manage them as a result.

Offer Flexibility

In order for people to feel comfortable with their work arrangements, they need flexibility. If they are able to work from home one day, if they are able to take the day off if they need it, or if they are allowed to leave before others, what you do during the first few weeks will affect everyone's perception of your office.

It is important that you have everyone participate in the process of returning to work. This includes management, non-management employees, and other categories as well.

Explain the WHY

It is crucial that you explain why you are implementing the return to work plan, and that you show what the aim of it is. If you are dedicated to showing that your employees are appreciated, then how about giving them a treat, letting them have a day off with pay, or involving all employees in discussing their options?

Listen to Them

You can't do everything, but you should definitely listen to the people who work for you. Hear what they have to say about their input, and be open to other options. Don’t just accept what everyone is saying, but also think of new solutions to help all of your team feel involved in the process.

Run surveys to find out what people think about returning into the office and how they would prefer doing it. Even if anonymous, their answers will allow you to manage expectations and create the right return to work program for your team.

Only Promise What You CAN Deliver

Managing expectations is not always about "packaging bad news in pretty boxes", but also about knowing exactly what you can deliver, so you know how to communicate it to other people. While you want people to be happy, it is also important that you are honest about the plans you have for them.

Promise what you are sure you can deliver, but don't promise the moon. Make sure everyone knows what their plans are, and that they know how much time they really have at your company. Don't promise anything that is impossible for an employee to get, unless you truly believe this will be beneficial for them.

Returning to work can be a weird experience given the context, but it might also be the beginning of a flourishing new era in your business. Allowing people to work in a hybrid model where they have the freedom to choose their work location, and maybe even work times, is a step forward in ensuring proper life/work balance, increased productivity, and higher employee retention rates.

Are you ready to make the jump?

Topics: Employee well-being

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