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4 ways to prevent culture shock as employees return to work

As companies gradually open their doors, they must consider how to reintroduce staff to the office environment (and each other).

4 ways to prevent culture shock as employees return to work
[Source photo: oatintro/iStock]
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For the last year, many employees have been working remotely in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, as vaccine efforts ramp up, companies are starting to announce their return to the office. Amazon says its corporate employees could be back in the office by fall, while other companies like Ford Motor Company, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and Facebook could bring their employees back by early summer. Some companies, such as Uber and Microsoft, have already opened their doors to employees.

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As these plans come to fruition, we can finally say goodbye to Zoom meetings and reluctantly put our athleisure wear away. But organizations and leaders shouldn’t hastily welcome employees back; they need to give the return to the office some thought. This shift can be a culture shock for employees who have become accustomed to working remotely. It’s important to carefully consider how to best reintroduce employees back to the office, and perhaps more importantly, to each other. After all, one of the main benefits of returning to the office is to reignite those more organic processes that are hard to replicate virtually. Here are four tips for helping to facilitate the return to the office.

Focus on team building

In the last year, there have likely been personnel changes in teams and departments—some members may have left, others may have joined. In addition to new members, teams have been communicating primarily via email and teleconferencing. While these tools have helped us to weather the proverbial remote-work storm, they make it difficult to build trust and limit our ability to give and understand complex information. As a result, team members will need to become reacquainted with one another and with their leader once they’re back in the office.

Although we love to hate them, team-building exercises can help build and strengthen relationships, promote cohesion, and create positive roles and norms for how the team should operate moving forward. Ideas for exercises designed to promote these human connections include: picnicking, a food or wine tasting, volunteering, or a hands-on experience like crafting. These activities can encourage long-term team effectiveness and also help us brush up on those social skills we haven’t used in a while.

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Provide support to employees

Research suggests employees look to their organizations and leaders for support at work. This is particularly the case when employees must navigate uncharted waters, like the ebbs and flows of working during a pandemic. As employees return to work and experience yet another change, organizations can help ease the transition. Organizations can provide more tangible support to employees. Health experts warn the pandemic is far from over. Employees still have different comfort levels about being around others. Providing employees with resources to help keep them safe and combat the virus can help quell concerns. Goldman Sachs has instituted temperature checks for employees coming into the office. In a recent Society for Human Resource Management survey, over three-quarters of organizations surveyed said they would implement social distancing, add contactless procedures, and are providing personal protective equipment to employees. Further, organizations should provide other equipment or technology that employees might need to do their jobs, which may have changed slightly due to the pandemic.

Supervisors can offer more personal or emotional support to employees. It’s unlikely that the stressors associated with the pandemic will cease once employees go back to work. In fact, the return could actually increase the amount of stress and anxiety that employees experience. Supervisors should spend time checking in with their employees, showing empathy and compassion for various situations that might arise, and asking whether employees need any resources to complete their job. It’s important to deliver on that latter point should employees request it. Some organizations like Workday and Cigna have taken a more systematic approach and have increased access to mental health resources (i.e., subscriptions to the Headspace app and behavioral health coaching) for their employees to help ease stress and anxiety.

Emphasize flexibility

There are aspects of remote work that employees have come to enjoy over the last year, such as a lack of commute and taking a catnap at lunchtime. In a recent PwC survey, over half of employees surveyed said they wanted to continue to work remotely at least three days per week. There’s no reason why companies can’t retain some of those aspects, particularly because the need for flexible schedules may still exist (i.e., caring for sick relatives, childcare, encouraging social distancing). Companies like Target and JPMorgan Chase have signaled they are not requiring that employees come back full time. Google’s parent company recently announced 20% of its employees will work remotely “wherever they work best” permanently. The option for remote work will still exist, should employees want to take it.

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Prior to COVID-19, many companies were adamant that remote work decreased productivity because employees couldn’t be trusted to work without a watchful eye on them. However, the pandemic has demonstrated that employees can be successful at home and sometimes even work longer hours compared to working in the office. There’s also the added benefit of reduced overhead costs. Research suggests when employees are offered the option for flexible schedules (i.e., compressed workweeks, remote work, choice in hours), they are more satisfied with their jobs and more committed to the organization. Giving employees some say in how they structure their schedules can yield numerous benefits. General Motors’s CEO, Mary Barra, is embracing this notion by trusting employees to work remotely as long as they “work appropriately.”

Clarify expectations

Over the last year, organizational policies and standard operating procedures have likely adapted to the evolving COVID-19 situation. They may change more with the return to the office. It will be important for organizations and leaders to clearly lay out expectations for employees before, during, and after the transition back to in-person work. Any future changes should be communicated fully, transparently, and in a timely manner to keep employees up to speed. Marriot, who was hit hard during the pandemic has been a key leader in valuing transparency and honesty in communication.

An often-overlooked component of organizational communication is upward communication—where employees can voice their thoughts and opinions and ask questions of those higher up in the organization. It’s important to create an outlet for employees to voice concerns and questions, without fear of reprimand, to ensure that employees know what is expected of them and to alert senior leaders to potential issues that might interfere with their duties.

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Haley Woznyj, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.