Returning to Office? 3 Tips for Leaders on How Best to Support Your Team

Non-essential office-based businesses are in the process of moving from full-time ‘work-from-home’ mode to a hybrid working model in most of Australia. This model has individuals working in the office up to 3 days per week and working at home on the other days. The idea is to stagger working days plus start and finish times to minimise the volume of commuters travelling at the same time, or overcrowding lifts and office spaces.

This is a significant logistical exercise with centralised strategies with departmental working groups to review and decide on the model for each business area. Plans are now in place and the teams are beginning to return. There’s a mixture of excitement, trepidation and uncertainty for the people heading back to the office.

I’ve been talking to leaders from across industries to see what their biggest challenges and concerns are and thought it would be useful to provide some insights from leaders going through what is a significant change for many. Here’s the best tips I’ve found to start thinking about what needs to be in place as a leader to ensure your teams feel supported:

1)     Understand the impact of the specific logistics on your people

Most of the policy-setting and logistics appear to have been set centrally in most organisations, so as leaders it’s key to ensure that both we and our teams understand and accept the plan. Ensure everyone has access to information about the changes affecting them and that they know where to go for any questions they might have.

Even though this change is a return to the office or the ‘old’ normal, it’s still a change after nearly 12 months at home for most teams. People might have challenges around childcare changes since they were last in the office, or some anxiety about the commute. Maybe they have moved house during the WFH period or they may just love the WFH environment and be resistant to returning. By checking in and seeing how they are feeling and what support they need you are likely to make the transition easier for everyone.

 Individuals who might be uncomfortable with the change tend to feel more uncomfortable and anxious when things aren’t laid out clearly for them. Ensure communications are clear, unambiguous and specific enough for each individual to be clear on their course of action. Double-check they know that they can contact you if they have questions, are unclear or anxious about their return.

2)     Be Deliberate in planning out your leadership activities

If we remember back to the start of the working-from-home era, most leaders recognised that there was a need to schedule check-ins, stand-up meetings, additional team time etc. Even though returning to the office might feel like less of a change, as leaders it’s a great approach to deliberately plan time in our schedules to check in on our team and see how they are feeling about the return.

It’s possible that the team settle in with no issues and you can then wind back the additional catch-ups, but it’s harder to try and fit these into an overstretched calendar after the fact. Leave yourself some space to deal with emerging change resistance and individual anxiety over the return.

3)     Be open to different reactions to the change

As leaders we can sometimes gauge the team’s emotional response based on our own feelings. We might be relieved and excited about the return to the office and assume that most people also feel this way. Or we might be feeling health anxiety or nervous about it and think that this must be true for others too. The reality is that we don’t know how other people are feeling unless we ask. Being vulnerable and willing to be open about how we are feeling gives our teams permission to do the same.

Change has an impact on all of us. Some people will be excited and delighted to be back in the office, some may be troubled by it, others may be neutral. We are all likely to go through a range of emotions in the process – denial, frustration, apathy (maybe one or all) before we settle back in.

Asking our teams how they’re doing will help to gauge who needs some additional support. This support might be in the form of a renegotiation on when they are in the office (where this is feasible), they might need some additional support such as via an Employee Assistance Program, or sometimes just knowing that someone cares enough to check in with them is enough to help them settle in.

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