As many pass their second anniversary of working from home, more and more companies are calling employees back into the office.
50% of company leaders say that their company will require employees to be in the office 5-days a week before the end of the year.
Yet, 93% say that they work better when not in the office.
The whiplash of the in-person office grind, to being completely alone all day at home, to returning to in-person work full time again is more than difficult. It is a foundation-shifting lifestyle change that is forced on many employees, even if they’re happier at home.
Like any major transition, employees have to deal with many intense and even competing emotions, including grieving leaving the comfort of home and their old work-from-home lives. Employees are also coping with the continued stress of COVID-19, financial challenges, and the Ukraine war, among other personal stressors like mental health challenges.
Our home lives and the outside world are shifting. Change is a challenge, especially now.
Here are some ways employees (and company leaders) like you can make this transition a little easier. And if you’ve already started going to the office again, stick around. These tips can help anyone that’s needing to cope with the return to work stress.
Returning to a World That’s No Longer Normal
Before we talk about strategies for returning to in-person work, let’s get a lay of the land so we understand the root challenges employees are facing.
According to WebMD, employees are facing greater stressors than ever before.
Here are some of the findings: “Done March 1-3 by The Harris Poll, the annual ‘Stress in America’ survey found that more adults rated inflation and the Russia-Ukraine situation as major stressors than any other issue asked about in the 15-year history of the poll. What’s more, money stress was ranked at the highest recorded level since 2015.”
“American adults also reported feeling emotionally overwhelmed and fatigued, with 87% agreeing that it ‘feels like there has been a constant stream of crises without a break over the last two years.’”
Plus, employees are giving up comfort, routines, security, time, money, quality time with family, and more to be in the office.
Employees also face a sudden spike in socialization during the workday, which can surface social anxiety. Navigating in-office politics again and meeting new coworkers that you’ve never met in person before can be nerve-wracking.
Thankfully, there are many ways employees and employers can prepare for a smooth return to work transition.
11 Steps to Return to In-Person Work Smoothly
Here are some tips for your return to work game plan:
- Talk to your manager
- Connect with your coworkers
- Focus on the positives of in-person work
- Take advantage of your work from home days
- Use your company’s benefits and resources
- Revisit your financial plan
- Revamp your self-care routine
- Set realistic expectations
- Tie up loose ends
- Think of this transition as an opportunity
1. Talk to Your Manager
If you’re confused about your company’s new in-person work policies, ask them about it. Understanding all of the new expectations will help you create a plan for a successful transition.
Here are some questions that can help you:
- What are the COVID-19 policies that will be in place?
- How many days per week will I be expected to be in the office?
- What will the first day back look like?
A note to managers: “I highly recommend having these conversations with employees proactively,” recommends Haeli Harris, Lead Clinician at Nivati and licensed therapist. “Being transparent right off the bat on your company’s return to work policies will help reduce unknowns and make new expectations clear to employees, reducing stress and making the transition easier for them.”
Harris also advises that managers talk about mental health with their employees, and do occasional check-ins to see how they are doing during one-on-ones.
“Just a simple ‘How have you been doing lately? How are you handling the transition back to the office?’ show that you care about their wellbeing.”
HR leaders can start training their managers to have these conversations with Nivati’s Manager Training Handbook. Nivati is a mental health platform for employees that provides counseling, life coaching, exercise classes, financial coaching, and so much more live and on-demand.
2. Connect With Your Coworkers
You aren’t the only one that is anxious about returning to work. You and your colleagues are in this together.
Reach out to someone who has already returned and ask them what it was like. This can help you feel less alone.
You can also plan to meet up with a coworker you are close to on your first day back. Meeting with someone you trust and enjoy being around can help reduce tension and first-day jitters.
3. Focus on the Positives of In-Person Work
It’s not unusual to focus on the negatives when you’re about to experience a big change.
“Fear is meant to protect us. Reframing your thoughts to think about the positives can help change your perspective when you're feeling fearful about a change or resisting it. It’s even possible to change your fear into excitement by using this technique.” explains Haeli Harris.
Here are some examples of positive things about in-person work:
- More opportunities throughout the day to build meaningful relationships and connections, increasing a sense of belonging and community
- The time during your commute to reflect, listen to a podcast or book, or jam out to music
- More clear work-life boundaries
- Likeliness to feel more engaged with the company and your work
- The change of scenery that working from home doesn’t always allow
4. Take Advantage of Your Work From Home Days
If your company still allows employees to work from home sometimes, take that into account as you develop your return to work strategy.
Make a list of all the project types and assignments you have. Examples are strategizing, reviewing work, meetings, writing, and analytical tasks. Which tasks are less stressful and easier for you to do in the office? How about at home?
Then, use your chronotype to help you determine the best times of the day to work on certain tasks.
Using these two factors, create a plan for which days and times you will do certain tasks, in the office and at home.
5. Use Your Company’s Benefits and Resources
Half of employees don’t understand their benefits. Benefits can be overwhelming and hard to understand. Plus, it’s not uncommon for employees to be unaware of all their company's perks.
Most employers offer an EAP program to help employees cope with mental health crises. Keep an eye out for mental health programs, financial wellness initiatives, and financial grants your company may provide as well. Reach out to your HR leader for more information on opportunities you may be eligible for.
Financial grants, for example, can provide employees with financial support during natural disasters.
6. Revisit Your Financial Plan
More coffee, more miles on your vehicle, more meals out… returning to in-person work will most likely impact your budget. A return to work plan wouldn’t be complete without thinking about your financial plan.
Make sure to check if your company offers financial wellness benefits as well; your company may provide tools that can help with this process. Financial grants are another increasingly popular way for companies to support employees that are negatively impacted by unexpected problems such as natural disasters.
Companies can help with this by holding a workshop on financial wellness and preparing for emergencies, especially as we head into hurricane season in the American south.
7. Revamp Your Self-Care Routine
You likely developed some routines that helped boost your wellbeing during your time working from home, like taking walks in the morning or preparing a homemade lunch.
To make the transition to in-person work easier, try adapting these routines to your new schedule. For example, take a walk during your lunch break in the office every day. Or, pack your lunch and bring it with you to the office.
Also consider creating some new mood-boosting routines, such as listening to a podcast or uplifting music during your commute.
Self-care also includes setting boundaries before you reach your breaking point.
Harris is a proponent of boundary setting. “Boundaries help us create space and time for ourselves. This can look like closing your laptop at 5 pm sharp every day and leaving it behind for the rest of the evening. Or, it can look like making it a habit to step away from your desk whenever you start to feel overwhelmed, even if you are in the office.”
Make those boundaries for your health, and stick to them.
8. Set Realistic Expectations
Be realistic about what you can expect of yourself and those around you during the return to in-person work transition.
Maybe you won’t get as much done in the office as you do at home—and that’s okay.
Everyone at your company is going through this challenging transition, too. Giving yourself grace will also help you give them grace.
9. Tie Up Loose Ends
A huge factor in reducing return to work stress is making sure your home is also prepared for the transition.
Make sure to find childcare, prepare your pet for you to be gone more often, figure out when you’ll do the grocery shopping—you get the idea.
Anything you can do to reduce stress in your personal life during this time will help you. Don’t expect to think of or find a solution to every little change. Remember to be kind to yourself as you make this transition. Everything doesn’t need to be solved at once!
10. Think of Returning to In-Person Work as an Opportunity
How can you make returning to in-person work a positive experience?
Here are some opportunities that returning to the office provides:
- Creating new healthy habits and routines
- Focusing more on networking and building connections
- Taking time for self-development during your commute
Whew! Congrats on making it this far. You’ve done a lot of work to make this change positive.
Your journey doesn’t stop when you walk into those office doors the first time again. Taking time to document your progress can help you continue creating positive experiences when you’re in the office.
One way you can practice self-reflection is to track your thoughts and feelings in a journal. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What emotions am I feeling right now?
- What has been stressing me out?
- What am I happy about?
- What do I like/dislike about being in the office? About working at home?
- What do I need right now?
- What thoughts do I find myself thinking throughout the day?
If you notice falling into a negative pattern for a while, it may be wise to seek help from a life coach or counselor.
A Note for HR Leaders and Managers
Flexjobs conducted a survey to see why people want more flexible work. Here’s the breakdown:
- “they need to pay for basic necessities (80 percent)
- they need to save for retirement (65 percent)
- they need to pay off debt (59 percent)
- they want to travel (58 percent)
- they want to have a professional impact in the world (41 percent)
- they want to contribute to charity (28 percent)
- they need to pay for continuing education for themselves (25 percent)”
Six out of the seven are related to financial needs.
One of the best ways employers can prepare employees for returning to in-person work is to provide them financial wellness benefits and support.
Financial grants for employees are a great way for companies to support their people. E4E Relief found that “73% of relief grant applicants said having an employee relief program made them feel more positively towards their employer. 27% of relief grant recipients were able to immediately direct more of their attention to their work as a result.”
Financial support is one of the best ways to make the return to work transition easier and support employee mental health amidst climate change and other challenges.
Adding more financial benefits to your package and sharing all of your financial benefits with employees during a workshop in the office can help. Making manager one-on-ones to check in on wellbeing a priority can also reduce return to work stress and make the transition back to the office easier for everyone.
For more tips on supporting employees, check out this post on building psychological safety at work.
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