Are your employees going back to the office? Here’s how to help them in the transition.
Whether we’re ready for it or not, things are beginning to get back to business as usual when it comes to how work gets done. In-person meetings are more common, as is returning to the office two to three days a week. Business travel is back, too. The majority of companies expect business travel expenses to be back up to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023.
For many, this transition back to work might have felt like a long time coming, but now that it’s actually happening, it may feel a lot more like whiplash. While working from home had its unique set of stressors and drawbacks, it also offered something that many people, myself included, may be reluctant to give up: time.
Over the past two-and-half years, my team and I created something of a new norm for ourselves, finding a healthy balance between our work and personal lives that ultimately resulted in a higher output of real work. This work took the place of the time-consuming commutes, mandatory in-person meetings, and hours lost flying back and forth to different destinations in the pre-pandemic environment. Now that many of these things are coming back, however, that balance will change again, and everyone will need to find a new normal that works for their business and themselves.
Helping your teams readjust to office life
This won’t necessarily be easy, but it’s our job as leaders to help our employees navigate this transition while trying to maneuver it for ourselves. This will require flexibility, a willingness to expect the unexpected and, above all, a strong dose of empathy for what your employees are going through.
1. Be aware of your team’s obligations.
Before you decide that a meeting needs to be mandatory or in-person only, make sure you’ve considered the obligations your team members have already committed to. That includes being aware of commute times and travel schedules and how they affect their current workloads.
Sit down with your teams and figure out whether they can still handle what’s on their plate now that traveling and commuting are taking up significant chunks of their working hours once again. Make sure they know this isn’t a reflection of poor performance but simply a part of the adjustment process.
2. Be empathetic of life outside work — for all parties involved.
The past two-and-a-half years have blurred the lines between people’s work and personal lives more than ever before. There were many times, especially for those with kids at home, when the line didn’t seem to exist at all. It could be stressful and chaotic, but it also helped to remind many of us of the importance of making enough room for both of these crucial aspects of our lives.
Don’t lose sight of this as you go back into the office. Even if team members’ kids aren’t at home 24/7 anymore, there are still plenty of activities and obligations that are just as important as what’s going on at work. It’s not reasonable to expect everyone to deprioritize their personal life just because in-person work is back.
It’s time, instead, to normalize the option to opt out sometimes and prioritize flexibility over a rigid work schedule or mandatory in-person meetings that add stress but don’t necessarily add any practical value for the business. Be open to feedback from your team about finding a better outcome that works both for the company and the people responsible for its success.
3. Find the best way to stay connected in this new environment.
One of the big challenges I faced during the pandemic was finding ways to keep my team members engaged with their work and connected with one another. I did small but effective things to alleviate this problem, such as sending out an email every Friday to connect with the team. I also took bigger steps, like taking our dormant travel-and-expense budget and using it to create swag boxes that helped make it clear how much we appreciated everybody.
Travel is back on, however, so the budget can no longer accommodate that type of gesture. Even the smaller (but still time-consuming) things like that Friday newsletter are difficult to keep up with as new commitments take precedence. But that doesn’t mean the sentiment behind these efforts should be discarded.
My employees were vocal about how much they appreciated these gestures. While those particular methods may no longer be workable, keeping that sense of connection and appreciation alive and well is important. Look at the things that worked during these past two-and-a-half years and try to find a balance that will help you pull the best parts forward while still being clear-eyed about what’s possible in the current environment.
4. Protect your own time.
There’s a reason they tell you to secure your own oxygen mask before you help others when you’re on a plane. You’re in the best position to see to the needs of others only if your own needs are already met. This is true when it comes to helping your employees, too. If you’re struggling with your own work-life balance, or even on the verge of burnout yourself, then you’re not going to be very effective in helping others navigate their own issues.
As travel picks up again, you’re likely to find yourself saying “no” to more personal opportunities to accommodate it — I know I am. That doesn’t mean you must sacrifice all of your downtime, though. Set limits on your work time where possible. I, for example, have set a rule for myself to agree to only two after-work events per month. This helps ensure that work stays, for the most part, within work hours and doesn’t take over my entire life.
Things will likely never go back to how they were before the pandemic, but that’s not necessarily bad. Take what you learned about your team and how they work best during the pandemic and figure out how you can apply it to their work lives as they are now. By working with your team instead of delivering orders from on high, you can help ensure that you’re getting the best out of them while they’re getting the most out of their work.