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Getting back to the office during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dealing with the emotional side of returning

By Larry Morgan, MAIR, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, GPHR

For most employees, the future is not circling a “return-to-work” situation, but rather a return-to-the office one. This produces a variety of emotional reactions, ranging from relief and eagerness to see your peers in the flesh, to concern about contracting COVID-19 and how restrictive the office setting may be.
 
A recent study conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) found:
  • Nearly one in four employees report feeling down, depressed or hopeless often.
  • 41% feel burned out, drained. or exhausted from their work.
  • More than one in five employees report COVID-19 has threatened the tangible parts of their jobs to a great or to a very great extent, including personal opportunities, job security, safe working conditions, and benefits and pay.
  • More than one in three employees (37%) report having done nothing to cope with these feelings and only 7% have reached out to a mental health professional.
  • Of interest, half of the Generation Z employees (born in and after 1997) agree their work makes them feel burned out compared to a quarter of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964).
We have never been through a return-to-work situation of COVID-19 proportions before.  There is not a clear playbook about how to address the issues, but we can draw on experience from parental leave, disability leave and other work-from-home arrangements.

Considerations for easing the transition

Employers should be prepared to address all the aforementioned emotional issues and more. Here are some tips that may be helpful:
  • View the return as a process — not a single event. Take a long-term view with reintegration efforts and acknowledge that things will be different in several ways. Ongoing change and readjustment will occur. The pandemic and potential morphing will be here for an extended period.
  • Avoid bringing everyone back at the same time by providing staggered returns, flexible scheduling, on/off days in the office, maintaining social distancing at work, etc.
  • Discuss how the physical work environment and work assignments has or will change to address concerns. Routine business will be anything but, and many employees are resistant or uncomfortable with change. Open and direct communication anticipating employee questions will be helpful. What will be different? What does work look like now? Will people still be able to work from home? Will I be expected to travel? What about meeting room distancing or continuing to hold virtual meetings?
  • Acknowledge many employees will feel disoriented at first. For many employees, the world has changed — unemployment, furlough/layoffs, normal social interactions disrupted, schools closed, wearing masks, stay-at-home orders, grocery store shortages, etc. Acknowledge we have all experienced a collective trauma and the world has been turned upside down. This disequilibrium will continue for an unknown length.
  • How will expectations be managed? Accountability? Discuss issues openly and continue to offer flexibility to help employees adjust. Review work assignments, deadlines, resources needed and flexible schedules, including work-from-home arrangements for a period of time. This will likely change over time based on health official recommendations. 
  • Discuss steps you are taking to maintain a safe work environment. Discuss how the work area will be sanitized on a daily basis; consider taking employee temperatures before being allowed into work; share how work areas are cleaned; provide masks and gloves; make hand sanitizer available; sanitize common areas daily; give guidelines for use of the refrigerator, microwave, coffee machine, etc. 
  • Address how to deal with employees not feeling well, while considering enhanced sick leave, use of paid time off, liberalized PTO carryover, and lay out requirements for being tested before returning to work, etc.
  • Share your Minnesota-mandated Return to Work Preparation plan with employees and ask for suggestions. Consider holding staff meetings (with social distancing and remote access) to discuss issues and gain input from employees.
  • Address employee concerns openly, especially with employees who have compromised immune systems or those living with others who are more vulnerable. Some employees may be directly affected with a loved one infected with COVID-19. Encourage employees to seek help to deal with stress, anxiety or depression. Refer to your Employee Assistance Program or mental health professionals through health insurance or county social services. Be careful to avoid Americans with Disabilities Act issues but acknowledge reasonable accommodation factors as needed.
  • Expect the unexpected. There will be bumps along the way with obstacles that were not anticipated, new challenges, employee departures and new client/customer/vendor issues, including shortages and supply chain issues.

In this together

The current expression of, “We’re all in this together,” could be helpful to assist employees with reintegration efforts and retention of your talent to help navigate the uncharted waters.
 
Larry Morgan runs the MNCPA HR Hotline and is president of Orion HR Group, LLC. He is a regular contributor to Footnote. You may reach him at larry.morgan@orionhr.com

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