Social Distancing in the Workplace

Prepare Employees for a Successful Return to a Shared Workspace

Employees might need help readjusting to collaborating in a shared workplace. Here’s a guide to doing it right.

Workplace communication, COVID-19, health and wellness, remote work, change management

By the time workers transition back to the workplace amid COVID-19, many will have months of remote work under their belts — and during that period, they will have trained themselves to connect digitally. Employees’ new habits fostered during long periods of remote work, along with increased stress caused by the pandemic, may make it difficult for them to transition back to a shared workplace.

“It takes 21 days to form a habit, and we’re talking at least three times that length,” says Jared Pope, human resources attorney and founder of the human resources technology and legal services company Work Shield, of the length of time many have spent working remotely during the pandemic.

To reacquaint employees with a shared work environment, consider how to “reboard” staff. Much like how the onboarding process for new employees sets them up for success, the reboarding process helps refamiliarize workers with their environment after a prolonged absence. Returning to work in the wake of the pandemic requires a multipronged approach that touches on mental health, effective in-person communication and a restructuring of the traditional office workflow.

Support Your Staff 

Workers will not perform well in a shared space if they’re not comfortable being there. Employees will have questions about staying healthy, how the company is helping to protect them from sickness and what’s expected. Communicate clearly and with compassion to allay their fears — this is the first step toward successfully bringing employees back to the workplace. 

“Companies need to have a sense of empathy in their communications,” Pope says. “It’s really about listening and making sure employees are heard.”

Highlight the precautions the company has taken to keep workers healthy and talk about important policy changes, then give employees opportunities to ask questions, either privately or during meetings and town halls.

Be honest and direct when answering questions; employees appreciate transparency. In a study by Slack, 80% of workers reported that they want to know more about how decisions are made in their organizations. If an employee asks when a particular aspect of business operations will go back to normal and you don’t know, tell them you’re not sure instead of making a promise you can’t keep.

“Don’t say, ‘Here we go, everybody. The world is fine, and let’s all get back to work,’” Pope says. “We all know that’s not true.”

After communicating the logistics of returning, focus on the benefits of coming back to a shared workspace, such as social engagement, team-building opportunities, easier collaboration and the elimination of Zoom fatigue. Gallup identified positivity as an effective change management tool, as opposed to focusing solely on obstacles and issues.

“Answer questions about anxieties and fears, but also address the excitement and fun parts of being back in an office,” Pope says.

Provide a Refresher on In-Person Communication

Months of email-based communication — essentially a series of one-sided missives read at each person’s convenience — may have shaped workers’ expectations of what dialogue looks like. Effective in-person communication requires patience, empathy, understanding and interest in what the other person is saying. 

Remind employees of those differences between remote and in-person communications. Then touch on the basics of face-to-face communication, such as:

  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Controlling the volume of your voice — speaking too loudly or softly can intimidate or annoy others
  • The importance of your tone of voice — according to the 7-38-55 rule, it accounts for 38% of meaning in communication
  • The role of body language — it can make or break first impressions and help establish trust
  • Being an active listener — you can reread an email, but asking others to repeat themselves can become an issue

Allow Employees to Carry Over Remote Work Methods

Consider the months of remote work as a valuable learning experience and let employees carry certain ideas over. “Ask, ‘What did you learn about yourself while working from home that maybe we can take into the office environment?’” Pope says.

Perhaps a team discovered that holding fewer meetings led to heightened productivity; managers should encourage that team to carry over this workflow.

Other employees might have found that they’re generally more productive when working remotely. With that in mind, consider setting up a hybrid situation where employees are required to come into the office only a few times a week. This allows employees to reacquaint themselves with the shared working environment slowly.

If remote work helped an employee realize that he or she prefers working alone, then try to bring those accommodations into the office. If you can, move that employee’s cubicle to a quieter part of the office, rather than putting that person at the center where conversations are happening constantly. On the other hand, if a team realized that its members thrive on frequent in-person interactions with one another, see if you can place them close to each other so they can communicate easily.

Making these accommodations allows employees to build on their remote experience rather than forget about it.

Take a New Approach to Feedback

Initially, managers should use a softer touch when they need to have difficult conversations with their direct reports, since employees are trying to adjust to a new environment and may be wrestling with grief and trauma surrounding the pandemic. 

When delivering tough feedback, take care not to lead with negative comments such as, “You sort of screwed up on this project.” Instead, approach the conversation with compassion: “Hey, we’re going to have a tough conversation about this project, but we’re going to get through it together.”

Feedback doesn’t have to be purely performance-based. Employees are making a big change from remote work back to in-office operations, and managers can make the transition easier by consistently reaching out to employees on a personal level. 

Managers can schedule daily meetings with direct reports to talk about how they’re doing. Asking employees, “How are you?” and “What can I help you with?” — and then following through when employees say they could use a hand — will help people stay on track as they get used to their new environment. It gives them a chance to voice their concerns and frustrations as well. 

“A company is only as strong as its employees,” Pope says. “Allow employees to be heard.”