How to have a healthy return to work: Four principles for leaders

Here’s how to help your team navigate a successful return to the office

There’s no doubt – working life is getting a rebrand. As businesses begin to encourage their workforce back to the office, it’s far from a return to things as they were. The last 18 months have revealed the importance of mental health, the advantages of flexible working and why we do still need the workplace, albeit perhaps as part of a mix with working from home and remote solutions.

The future of work is open to be created, and for business leaders – whether you’re an entrepreneur at the helm of a start-up, a team leader within a large business, or the CEO – there’s a balance to be struck between getting your business back on track and ensuring the wellbeing of your staff. What the ‘new normal’ will look like will differ from business to business, but there are some guiding principles that will help you navigate a smooth and stress-free transition back to the workplace. Here’s what the experts suggest:

Spend time with your team

We’ve all been connecting on Zoom, but nothing can replicate the quality of time spent in person. It can be tempting to leap straight in with a set of priorities and objectives, but after so long working semi-separately, Ruth Kudzi, CEO and founder of Optimus Coach Academy, believes taking time together will pay dividends in the long run. “Leaders need to spend time with their team if they are going to rebuild trust,” she says. “I’d encourage leaders to consider how they can support their team in a way that also allows them to support their own desires. As a leader, if you become too absorbed in what you are doing then it can mean that it takes longer for the team to reintegrate and grow in their strength.”

“Not everyone will be on site all the time, which could create an ‘out of office, out of mind’ mentality,” says Mark Seemann, founder and CEO of StaffCircle. “This can impact performance, promotion, inclusion and knowledge sharing. While video calls and messaging tools can work, they are hard to measure and extract information from so it’s important to find a way to give employees a voice.”

Nick Gallimore, director of talent transformation at Clear Review agrees: “Make a good start by checking in regularly with staff to ensure they’re working to the best of their ability and to find out if they have any blockers or stressors preventing their productivity. During times of change and uncertainty, this is more important than ever. One of the most important things you can do for your staff is to keep communication open.”

Leave no room for ambiguity

“Anxiety is typically linked to uncertainty, so don’t leave space for staff to make assumptions or create their own narratives,” advises Emma Gross, an employment partner from city law firm Spencer West. She recommends having answers to questions like: what will work look like in the coming months? When might I need to go back to the office? What expectations will my employer have of me? What flexibility might exist?

“Be inclusive, so your team feels consulted and reassured,” she adds. “Everyone has had different experiences in the pandemic and will have different views about returning to the office. An open dialogue with staff will help them feel they have some control.”

HR consultant Pip Foulsham agrees. “It’s a two-way process. If an employee isn’t getting the clarity they need, they should ask to have a discussion with their manager, but it’s for managers to define their expectations. Flexibility, trust, openness and honesty are key.”

Change the space

The physical realities of offices will be different as people expect varying levels of social distancing, quiet places to work alone and space to take breaks. “Leaders need to consider not just the cultural impact the pandemic has had on the future of the workplace, but practical changes too,” says Seemann. “Many organisations are changing their offices from seated environments to hub/drop-in spaces and they need to have carefully planned processes in place – including health and safety.”

Kudzi recommends making changes to the format of the office itself. “Have an open space which is welcoming for everyone. For example, having plants and space for people to move around,” she advises. “Calming and softer colours can be less emotionally charged than brighter colours like red or orange.”

Gallimore also advises giving people the choice of where they work, when possible: “You may be hoping you can find a one-size-fits-all solution for your hybrid working model, but this may not be possible,” he says. “Instead, ask them to be in the environment that best suits the task they are carrying out. So, if an employee feels an office setting will help them make the most of their day, they can work in the office. But if they will work better in the quiet of their own home, that can be fine too.”

Look out for burnout and be ready

Though no one expects team leaders to become overnight experts on mental health and wellbeing, keeping an eye out for burnout is possible. “There may be subtle verbal or non-verbal cues that they are suffering from anxiety or having difficulty processing the situation they are in,” says Gross.

“The emerging correlation between COVID-19 and mental health is extremely concerning,” says Ian Caminsky, CEO at FirstCare. “Evidence shows us that three in five workers will leave their job after two mental health-related absences, so leaders must protect their workforces by better understanding the nature, extent and causes of lost working days in their organisation.”

Employers and leaders can offer practical help like workshops on breathing and coping mechanisms, and have someone trained as a mental health first aider on the team who people can speak with if they need to.

Johanna Derry Hall is a food, travel and design journalist who writes for the Evening Standard, the Telegraph and Mr Porter, among other titles