Are you returning to the office? Is your staff worried and anxious? Are you? After two years of working away from our former second home, people are worried and concerned about coming back. As a leader, what can you do to understand and ease those concerns?
What are Their Concerns?
A quick internet search will find you lots of possible reasons people have concerns about returning to the office. While the laundry list might be instructive to show you the breadth of possible concerns, the only concerns that matter to you are those held by your team members. Before you have any chance of easing their concerns, you must know what they are. If you haven’t talked with people individually to begin to understand their individual concerns, this is where you must begin.
Whatever their concerns, they likely fall into one or more of these areas:
- Health concerns. These will be the concerns and worries related to the health risks of being in the office.
- Commute concerns. These are concerns related to the commute – usually related to time, routines, and cost.
- Work concerns. These are the concerns about the work itself. “I’m getting my work done, why do need to change again?”
- Productivity concerns. “How am I supposed to get work done with all the interruptions in the office?” “I’ve been working during my former commute time – what am I gaining coming back in?”
- Work/life balance concerns. Many people have found a way balance their work and life now that they like. Returning to the office may be seen as a big step backwards for your team members.
- Other concerns. This could include questions about dress code, working hours, amount of interaction, and more. While groupings here will include most of those you might encounter, as you listen to your team, you will understand these specific concerns.
How to Address Them
Here are several tips to help you engage with, understand, and potentially act on people’s concerns about returning to the office.
- Ask. It sounds simple. But you must ask people what their concerns are. Don’t assume, ask.
- Listen and emphasize. Don’t move into solution or coaching mode immediately. Start by simply listening. When people feel heard, they will begin to feel better about the situation, and better about their relationship with you.
- Understand the nature of the concerns. Use the list of areas above if they are helpful. Listen to the concerns, understand them, and start to categorize them.
- Allow ongoing dialogue. Allow people to continue the conversation about their concerns. You don’t need (or want) people to simply complain over and over, but venting and sharing concerns is helpful.
- Make sure they understand the new policies and plans. In their angst and concerns, they might not see how the return to office plans actually do address their concerns.
- Ask for their input. After you truly understand their concerns and they understand the plans, ask them what they would like changed. Maybe what they want can’t be changed (yet), and there is more on this below. But maybe a small tweak that you can influence is all they need.
- Talk about it as a team. Not all their concerns will be the same, but there may be more commonality than individuals realize. There is power in sharing the concerns, and the possibility that the team can identify ways to overcome or lessen the concerns together.
- Help them see the bigger picture. Some people have become more personally focused as they have worked from home. When reminded of the strategies and goals of the organization, and perhaps see how they are served by a return to the office, they will understand the context more, even if they don’t love the new working arrangement.
- Share their concerns upward. Just as you need to understand their concerns, those higher in the organization need to understand them, too. Share upward in a spirit of understanding and concern, not complaining.
- Make adjustments. You may need to work inside of your new policies and plans, but perhaps you can address some of the concerns within the team. Do that when you can.
What if You Don’t Have Answers?
You can’t ease their concerns if you don’t know what they are. But what if you can’t do anything to address them? Some leaders have been afraid to engage with team members about their concerns because they feel helpless. After all, the new policy takes effect on this date, and so what can I do anyway? Empathy is key. You may not have answers, but you do have ears. People want to be heard and listened to. Making it safe for them to share their concerns is a great starting point. Keeping those concerns hidden or ignoring them serves no one and may make things worse.
Returning to the office is a real change and may be bumpy for individuals and the team. If you take the approach outlined here, it will be an easier transition for your team and will ease/solve at least some of these concerns.
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