Managing Return-to-Office Anxiety

We share 5 tips to help to encourage a confident and anxiety-free return whether you’re an employer or employee.

A return to the office may be welcome for some, but can be a cause of anxiety for others. Whether you’re an employer or employee, the transition back from virtual work is no less complex than the move into lockdown.

It is important to acknowledge and understand the legitimate anxiety you, or your colleagues may be experiencing about returning to an office environment. Being open and honest with yourself and others, and encouraging everyone to be considerate of each other and to respect each other’s space and views, is more important than ever.

5 Tips for Managing Your Return-to-Office Anxiety

  • Flexible Hours or Gradual Return
    If the commute to work is something that fills you with dread, or you’ve become used to being able to do the school drop-off and pick-ups, try discussing with your manager whether there is a possibility of starting in the office a little later, or finishing slightly earlier to avoid rush hour. You might be able to log on at home and then use your coffee break to drive in, or arrange to leave to pick your children up and then log on at home after. Maybe there is a possibility of a phased return, where you can do one or two days in the office to start with. Try to ease yourself in if you can.
  • Gather Information and Talk to Others
    Enquire about changes to your workplace – will you still be sitting in the same place? What extra safety measures have been put in place? Are you required to wear masks? Talking to other co-workers and asking your manager or employer questions such as these will mean you know what to expect when you return and will help you feel more prepared and in control. Working from home has made employers and management more aware of their team’s personal lives and in many cases there are more open lines of communication to voice concerns – don’t be afraid to ask questions and talk about your home commitments and responsibilities.
  • Communicate Your Needs and Boundaries
    Set expectations with co-workers by being as open as you can about your views, schedule and plans. Let others know how comfortable you are with social greetings and interactions as well as how often you’d like to be in the office or attend face-to-face meetings. Being open and communicating your needs and boundaries will also encourage others to be open and honest with how they’re feeling and help to avoid any awkwardness.
  • Make a Plan
    To avoid increased anxiety on your first day in the office, take time to plan ahead. Practice your commute to determine whether travel time or transport schedules have changed. Plan for rest and personal time after work, and set time for activities that help you relax and unwind. Understand that it’s expected and acceptable to feel more tired than usual as you adjust to new routines and the stimulation of being in the office environment again.
  • Break Time
    Schedule in time for breaks during your day in the office. Being back amongst colleagues may feel great for some, but overwhelming for others. If this is the case, make sure you schedule in breaks for fresh air or ‘time out’ of the social office whirl. There may even be a quiet room or area where you can work alone or catch up on emails without being bombarded with colleague chatter.

5 Ways Employers can Encourage Employees to Return to the Office with Confidence

  • Be Patient
    Whether your employees show it or not, they have been through a lot of change, both at home and at work. Be patient with yourself and your team. People’s behaviour may change or they may seem ‘off’ as they take time to process changes and new realities. Try to be flexible in when and how work gets done – people have become used to the flexibility home-working gives them, to jump back into a 9-5 in the office with a scheduled lunch break at 1pm might be too rigid and leave employees feeling stressed. Even if a return to normal working hours is the end goal, be patient and give people time to ease in and adjust back into office working.
  • Gradual Approach
    Gradually expose people to the working environment by operating a ‘hybrid’ approach of workplace and home working. Allow workers to take things slowly, but also remind those who have got used to not working in the office of the benefits the office can bring. Encourage collaborative days, or put in team meetings at the office on a regular basis. Giving the opportunity for teams to meet and go through current projects will kick start physical communication again and highlight the importance of the social element of working.
  • Warning: Make sure meetings are held in a Covid-secure way – don’t increase anxiety by asking people to be in close environments where they at risk or anxious.
  • Have a Lanyard or Wristband System
    Remember that some employees may prefer to stick to social distancing measures in the office. Have a box at reception where people can choose a lanyard or wristband with a colour that represents their distancing preferences, for example: 

    - Green: Happy to be close to others
    - Yellow: Hugs are a bit much, but handshakes or elbow bumps are fine
    - Red: I’m choosing to keep some distance
  • Involve Staff in Creating Their Safe Place to Work
    Ask around to find out what would make people more comfortable. People want to be part of the process and feel in-the-know so look for ways to actively include them. Consider creating a safe space for people to process their emotions and feelings with each other. Offering them somewhere they can go to take time out and talk with others will show you understand and support them – it illustrates that you are encouraging openness and honesty about the impact of these changes. Space desks apart, look at whether a hot desk system might work, encourage regular breaks, but most importantly ask others what they feel would help and be willing to give things a try.
  • Be Alert and Ready to Help
    Keep an eye on your employees and encourage managers to look out for warning signs. Some people may be having significant challenges navigating the return to the office and may be sending subtle signals (verbal and non-verbal) that they are struggling. Be alert during your interactions with others and make sure you have the correct information about where to refer staff who are struggling. If you have an employee assistance programme (EAP) be proactive about communicating it with team members.

Above all, whatever side of the desk you’re looking at this from, or perhaps you’re having to manage both, it’s important to remember everyone was affected by the pandemic in different ways. Scars will take time to heal and it will take time for new ways to feel normal. Until then, we must try to be as kind and understanding of each other as possible.

Extra Resources: