How to Reopen an Office in a Pandemic

How to Reopen an Office in a Pandemic

Uncertainty can be a common trigger for stress and anxiety. And if the last year has had one defining characteristic, it would be uncertainty. As many companies are now planning their at least partial returns to the office, they must also consider their employees’ natural apprehension about what this new world looks like.

Your employees are undoubtedly wondering how their workplace will be different in 2021 and therefore how their lives will change as we return to offices. They will have a range of mixed emotions and the better you can pre-empt and help your staff navigate this strange new anxiety, the more smoothly you can get back to work.

1. Firstly, is your office ready to reopen? Have you planned health and safety?

Have you completed a full risk assessment of your workspace, reworked walkways in high traffic areas to allow for social distancing? Will you do temperature checks at the door or virtual health evaluations prior to work? There is a great deal to consider when it comes to the physical safety of your office. Many offices have been idle for a long time so you’re bound to end up with a snag list.

Once people are back in the office it’s smart to show them that employee health and wellbeing is of paramount importance. Vitrue VIDA can assess their workspace to help them make sure they have a healthier and happier working experience. Doing a wellbeing and desk assessment like VIDA very soon after coming back to the office will greatly put their minds to ease with their employer clearly setting their health and wellbeing as a priority concern.

Be particularly mindful of any employees who may be high-risk. It’s important that they understand the measures you have taken to ensure their safety as they may be feeling especially fearful about leaving their home.

Once you’ve completed the essential measures getting people back in safely, the next, and arguably most important step is communication.

2. Share, share and over-share

Use email, video call town-halls, carrier pigeons, whatever you need to make sure that your employees are as informed as possible about how you’ll reopen your office. Uncertainty is uncomfortable at best; add in pandemic to the mix and it can result in very legitimate anxiety. Make it a two way conversation and include some employees in the workshop and planning discussions to reduce worried whispers in your hallways and on Zoom.

Employees have feared the worst over the past several months so whatever you do it’s important to communicate excessively. Will my company survive? How will I manage with less money if my company cuts salaries? Even worse, will there be layoffs when government support dries up? If you do not inform your employees of the steps you have taken to safely bring teams back into the office and how changes will impact them personally, they are left to listen to rumours and draw their own conclusions – likely at 4am lying awake in bed.

The more you can communicate with your employees the state of the company and the plans for the future, the more proactively you can manage this disruptive source of angst.

3. Offer flexibility and be understanding

It’s important to recognise the variety of individual concerns you’ll experience. The more extroverted employees could be excited for the return to socialising while nervous about how new restrictions will affect that. For the more introverted who have relished working from home the return to the office may leave them concerned if that will be lost. Similarly, for any of these employees who need to take public transportation to get to their jobs, while the office may be ready, they might be feeling apprehensive about their commute.

To create a smooth transition towards whatever the new normal looks like for your company, it’s essential to recognise the unique concerns various people will have. Psychological safety — the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation — has been well established from research by HBR as a critical driver of high-quality decision making, healthy group dynamics and interpersonal relationships, greater innovation, and more effective execution in organisations.

Encourage your managers to lead with empathy and curiosity to first understand those worries. If possible, offer flexibility regarding remote and in-office work, working hours, or other creative areas to help reduce concerns among your staff as you begin this journey to your new normal. The accommodations may only be temporary but will go a long way in bringing your employees back into the office in a productive way.

As some external research; Workology found that over 65% of employees would be willing to take a pay cut to live and work in a location of their choice. They surveyed over 1,100 people in a post-pandemic work from home survey. When asked what factors would motivate moves for remote workers, 64% of respondents selected the promise of more affordable costs of living in a different place. Other top motivators were better weather, proximity to family, and proximity to outlets for hobbies, like sports and other recreation.

4. Support each other

It seems intuitive, especially if you have nurtured a culture where employees are already encouraged to care and collaborate with each other, but now is the time to formalise this way of working. HR can’t do it by themselves; line managers and even your employees should be trained on how to spot the signs of distress and burnout both in themselves or their teammates and what options they have for support. Vitrue created a burnout assessment to help with this. Our clinically-validated approach will identify risks and symptoms of burnout to recommend actions to prevent or treat it. Our clinical lead also recently wrote a blog post on the five stages of burnout and what you can do to prevent or treat it.

The journey matters as much as the destination

For many companies, the re-opening of their offices is already well underway. Our top tips are:

  1. Planning for safety and demonstrating you care where you can is paramount. Vitrue VIDA’s wellbeing and desk assessment combines DSE compliance for employers while also delivering personalised recommendations to employees on how they can have a healthier and happier working experience.
  2. Communicate consistently at every step and include them in your research and planning stages.
  3. Providing support and flexibility will help this process be smooth and mindful.

It will be a bumpy journey with some fresh challenges none of us will have experienced before but by following these tips, you can help your employees transition back to the office with less anxiety and hopefully more excitement!


Shane is CEO and co-founder at Vitrue Health.

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