How can empathy better your staff’s back to office transition?

“Returning to the office” is a phrase that can cause elation for some and dread in the hearts of others. It has been a regular topic of conversation in many offices across Australia since restrictions have been eased, intensified by large corporations, such as Twitter, announcing their flexible working plans in 2021. 

Over 40 per cent of Australians regularly worked from home in August 2021, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). In 2022, 67 per cent of employees worldwide stated that working from home gave them the ability to be more flexible with how they spent their time (Statista 2022). With these figures, it is not surprising that most job advertisements include flexible working arrangements in their list of benefits; in fact, many argue that to be a competitive employer in this current global and candidate-driven market, businesses must offer a hybrid working model. WFH in some form will survive long after the Covid-19 pandemic has come and gone. Even here at MyRecruitment+, we have adopted a hybrid working environment, but it certainly isn’t for everyone.      

In saying that, a lot can be said about working in the office. Benefits include increased job satisfaction through socialisation, easier team collaboration and culture-building, and more support for new staff… not to mention the excitement of wearing something other than sweatpants and slippers. 

How can you smooth the transition back to the office?

So, as a business that has decided to transition back, how can you manage this move to the office after extended periods of remote working? 

Surprisingly, the solution is an unassuming quality, empathy.

Workplace well-being has become increasingly popular in the new COVID world. Business leaders and decision-makers are now, more than ever, required to offer empathetic leadership to ensure employee well-being is nurtured and supported. Staff will feel undervalued without this personal and empathetic touch, resulting in future productivity declines and higher staff turnover. In particular, times of significant change – such as transitioning back into the office – can be seen by employees as unstable and uncertain. These periods bring up many different emotions and require even more empathy than usual. 

For this reason, I have compiled a list of tangible steps to illustrate how you can empathetically steer staff back to the office. Though these steps are written for the purpose of assisting the transition of employees from remote working, they have empathy at their core and can be used in many staff leadership situations.

Ask for input: begin with an employee survey

Sometimes to begin a conversation, you need to start it yourself. To be able to address potential doubts, concerns, and fears, it is essential first to arm yourself with information. Business decisions carry a higher risk when they are not informed; you would not change from one supplier to another without obtaining and evaluating the relevant information, so why would you change the location of your workforce without doing the same?

The survey information that you collect will give your business direct insight into the attitudes of your staff while including employees in a meaningful conversation and creating a space where they feel valued. As touched on before, a valued staff member is often a long-term staff member. By including them in this conversation now, you are helping their transition to the office and effectively contributing to their long-term retention later: two birds, one stone.

Create a bespoke plan and give plenty of notice

Change is easier to deal with when concerns have been heard and ample time for preparation is given. Though some employees will be jumping for joy at the idea of going back to the office, others will have families to coordinate, mental or physical health concerns that need to be addressed, and new furry friends with separation anxiety that need to be considered. 

Creating a bespoke plan using the information from your employee survey, and communicating this ahead of time, will take away the element of surprise and allow the news to sink in. It will also confirm the message you are trying to send to your staff: you are empathetic, value staff input, and wish to support employee well-being. 

One small step for now… one giant leap later on

Slow and steady indeed does win the race when executing significant changes such as this. Going from full-time remote work to five days per week in the office could cause a complete shock to the system for some. Gradual returning is key to bringing the less enthused staff back to the office. 

Perhaps start with one day per week, moving to two, then three… before you know it, your office will be buzzing with people every day. 

Is there room for continued flexibility? 

Not all enterprises have the ability to allow hybrid working models or opportunities for flexible working arrangements; for example, surgeons obviously cannot work from home. Though, if you do have the capability to offer some flexibility, this support will go a long way with employees. 

Flexibility and adaptability show your staff that you see them as a person with unique circumstances. A blanket rule will unlikely work for everyone, and when you offer this personalised touch, you will, in return, get the same back. What you put in, you generally get out! 

The final, ongoing step: follow-up 

By now, your staff are back working in the office. Some have adapted quickly to office life, and some may still be working through the transition. Now is not the time to wipe your hands and be done; it is the time to send out a follow-up survey. 

Remember that survey you sent out at the very beginning? Release a second similar survey to put the finger on the pulse of your employee’s attitudes and track progress. Then, do another one in 6 months. Consistent communication and requests for feedback solidify the message of your ongoing commitment to their well-being while keeping the door open for two-way conversation.

Final Thoughts

“Returning to the office” does not have to be a phrase that brings about dread; it can be a time where people can flex their adaptability muscles safely and with support. With an empathetic leader at the helm of your business and consistent two-way communication, something somewhat convoluted becomes straightforward and easier to navigate. 

So, I encourage you to consider the importance of having empathy when creating strategies that will likely affect staff well-being. In particular, when managing working arrangements, ask for input to understand how such changes will impact employee productivity before deciding on your plan of action. Through this consideration, you will be able to manage the transition effectively. 

Author Laura Koefoed