February 23, 2024

Return to Office: Tips for Supporting Anxious Employees

Stephen Massey & Jamie Vaughn
Health Action Alliance

Keeping your people healthy, supported and productive will require a renewed commitment to empathy, flexibility and open communication.

The Omicron wave is receding, so many employers have announced plans to reopen offices—a welcome sign for workers who are eager for a “return to normal.”

But for many workers, reopening offices will create new anxieties. Some may fear getting infected and bringing COVID-19 home to their families, including immunocompromised loved ones or young children who aren’t yet eligible for vaccines. Others may feel more productive at home or have caretaking responsibilities that make it more difficult to come in. And, many workers may be worried about adjusting to face-to-face interactions with colleagues after two years working in pajamas over Zoom.

For most employers, this is uncharted territory, and leaders will need to plan ahead to create safe, supportive return to office environments. We’ve interviewed employers across the country and put together a list of top tips to help you prepare.

  • Lead with empathy and acknowledge the uncertainty. If there’s anything we’ve learned during the past two years, it’s that pandemics aren’t predictable. Be upfront that we are all still navigating a rapidly evolving public health emergency and that return-to-office policies and safety protocols may change as the pandemic continues to unfold. Make sure you communicate that the safety of your employees is (and will always be) your #1 priority and that you want to address their concerns. 

  • Gather employee feedback. It’s hard to know how your workers are feeling about returning to the office unless you ask them. Consider an anonymous survey or plan a town hall where employees are encouraged to share their concerns and ideas for creating a safer, more supportive workplace environment. Make sure you’ve heard from disproportionately impacted populations, including women and communities of color, who may have unique concerns about the pandemic or caretaking responsibilities that make office returns more challenging. 

  • Explain your reasoning and communicate consistently. As offices reopen, explain the rationale for the changes you’re making—this could include metrics around company vaccination rates, community vaccination/infection rates, or the results of any earlier phases of your company’s return to work. Also, make sure to lay out the steps your company is taking for health and safety, including mask policies, social distancing and ventilation measures, or handling suspected COVID-19 cases. As new information becomes available and workplace safety protocols evolve, employers should maintain regular communication so workers know when and where to go for updated information. 

  • Build in flexibility. Remember that real-life circumstances for employees and their families will require you to be nimble. Workers may get sick and need to quarantine, schools and childcare facilities may need to close suddenly, and changes in routine may cause additional stress at home. Building flexibility into your policies—hybrid schedules with the option for remote days, easing your workers in to an in-person return, helping employees find and pay for child or elder care—can make the transition easier. And “baby steps” are often easier to manage than sudden adjustments in the event of a new crisis like last summer’s wave of infections from the Delta variant. 

  • Avoid the temptation to overpromise. Being flexible isn’t just about empathy and compassion; it’s also about maintaining productivity and retaining people. In today’s tight labor market, you may be tempted to promise employees that they can work from home indefinitely or tell them that choosing to work from home won’t impact their career. That might not be true, especially as researchers study the long-term impacts of hybrid work arrangements. So be realistic and straightforward with your team. Many of your employees are eager for a “return to normal” and may resent an overly accommodating culture—again, gathering workers’ feedback will help you hit the sweet spot with your offerings.

  • Consider special training for managers. Before reopening offices, make sure managers across your organization are ready to have open, empathetic conversations with anxious workers. Many managers aren’t skilled or experienced at identifying signs of distress, especially when they themselves haven’t had in-person interactions with workers for many months. For some managers, just starting the conversation can be challenging. You can help by encouraging them to “check in” on the worker (not the workload) and ask open-ended questions that invite more open, honest dialogue. 

  • Improve access to emotional wellness at the office. Some employers are preparing to reopen offices with new “calming spaces” or meditation areas for employees who need extra support managing anxious feelings. Others have trained counselors on-site to meet with employees who are experiencing anxiety or stress. These steps—combined with other Employee Assistance Programs, mental health apps that offer 24/7 support, and robust mental health benefits offered under employer-sponsored health plans—can contribute to a culture of psychological safety, especially during times of transition. Evaluate your existing workplace mental wellness offerings and clearly explain the workplace wellness resources available to employees. 

  • Continue to encourage—or require—vaccination and frequent testing: Roughly 3 in 4 people living in the United States have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, yet only half of those eligible have gotten a booster dose for optimal protection. Employers can provide information on the importance of boosters and encourage eligible workers to keep their vaccinations up to date by offering paid time-off or a remote work day for scheduled booster appointments. Most states allow employers to establish their own company vaccination and testing policies, including vaccine requirements for workers, regular testing, and paid time off for vaccine appointments. Check out our sample COVID-19 policy template and use our updated Decision Tool to inform your workplace policy decision-making process.  

  • Support employees who want to take extra precautions. Each of us is navigating pandemic risks differently, and nobody should be shamed for taking extra steps to prevent themselves and others from being infected. Employers can help ease return-to-office anxieties and contribute to an inclusive safety culture offering masks, hand washing stations, hand sanitizer, and socially distanced workstations through this transition period.

As you navigate this new phase, remember it’s your people—not your office—that’s your company’s greatest asset. Returning to the office will no doubt present new challenges, but consideration and careful planning can help ease some of the adjustment hiccups. Use this time to build a company culture that emphasizes important factors for worker satisfaction, such as collaborative feedback, transparency, and mental wellness.