Making a Safe Return to the Office Post-Pandemic

For millions of professionals around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we experience work. Many non-essential employees began working remotely for the first time ever, and on top of that, working parents had to (somehow) get things done with kids at home doing virtual learning.

Now, with vaccines available to every American 12 years old and up, many businesses are starting to reopen their offices and invite employees back to their desks. Some are giving employees a choice between coming in or remaining remote, some are creating hybrid schedules allowing employees to come in just a few days a week, and some are asking their teams to return to the office for a full 40-hour workweek. There are even some companies that have chosen to close their offices for good, and will be keeping their workforces entirely virtual. 

No matter the scenario, there are still many things for both employers and employees to consider.

An anxious return to office life

Some people can’t wait to get back to a traditional office environment, and the mere thought of returning to conference rooms and watercooler chats is thrilling. But for some, the thought of returning to work — especially with COVID-19 still not completely under control — is stressful, and for some, even scary.

Cleveland Clinic psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, shares that many people are experiencing what she calls “reentry anxiety” — a form of anxiety that spurs from apprehension about returning to work after socially distancing at home for an extended period. According to Dr. Albers, there are two forms of reentry anxiety.

“The first form concerns safety. People are anxious that when they leave their house, they may unknowingly contract COVID-19 or possibly spread it. The second type is around social interactions. Over the past year, we have been social distancing and lost practice of how to meet with people in person, look them in the eyes, and engage in everyday chitchat.”

Experiencing a bit of trepidation in this situation is normal, but for some people, the fear can be paralyzing, making the return to work that much more difficult.

Keeping yourself and your colleagues safe

As of July 2021, not quite half of all Americans are fully vaccinated. So the CDC recommends that businesses continue to follow certain guidelines that limit the spread of COVID-19 and help keep workers and the public safe. 

See the latest CDC recommendations here >

As new data is being evaluated and recommendations change regularly, it’s important for business leaders to communicate clearly and consistently with their employees on what to expect with their return to the office. 

“With your work environment, be sure to spell out what your expectations are and ask for your employer’s COVID-19 safety policy. Be sure to thoroughly read the policy. Your employer must follow the established safety protocols. If they don’t, you can point to the document and say, ‘Here it specifies that cleaning will take place,’ and ask any question you may have. Keep in mind that you don’t want to be combative when you have this conversation. Just make it clear that safety on the job is very important to you. Your safety is key and you don’t have to apologize for that,” says Dr. Albers.

What to expect with a hybrid work model

Employers and researchers alike have found over the last year that employees are just as (or more) productive when working from home. Because of that, many companies are transitioning to hybrid work models, in which employees can split their time between the office and home.

In a recent study, McKinsey & Company found that 9 out of 10 business executives expect to continue a hybrid model for roles within the company that aren’t essential to work on-site — with those employees working on-site 21-80% of the time, or one to four days per week. Yet, 68% of the companies surveyed do not have a detailed plan or vision in place for hybrid work.

So while it seems like hybrid work could become the new norm, there is still work to be done to implement it properly. Mark Mortensen, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, writes in the Harvard Business Review that there are three things to consider when it comes to hybrid work:

  • Productivity. The ability to collaborate effectively when some (or all) employees are working remotely can vary by team, company, and industry. It’s important for leaders to determine their optimal mix of work arrangements that allows the organization and its employees to thrive.
  • Staffing. The pandemic has changed people’s expectations of how they should be allowed to work. Companies that don’t offer employees some level of flexibility may find they have a harder time retaining and recruiting top talent.
  • Culture. Company values, beliefs, and norms have historically been experienced firsthand, in person. As companies add more hybrid or fully remote positions, it will be critical to find ways to translate these cultural beliefs and experiences to the virtual world.

Adjusting to the new normal

We’re all adjusting to life after lockdown, and while many things will likely go back to the way they were, some things — like how we work — could see long-lasting change. The shift to more remote work opportunities, for example, can make jobs more accessible for people with disabilities, as well as the primary caregivers (most often women) of children or aging parents. This is good for businesses too, as they can recruit great talent from anywhere in the world.

If you’re returning to partial or full-time work in person and are having a hard time adjusting, be sure to prioritize not only your physical health but your mental health too. It’s important to keep your body and mind healthy as you deal with these changes.  

“This year has been traumatic for everyone. It’s no surprise that returning to work may trigger preexisting conditions such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. If you’re struggling, be sure to reach out to a mental health professional,” recommends Dr. Albers.