Posted By: Envision2bWell, Inc
By Ally Vastano
As the number of vaccinated Americans has risen, more and more employees have transitioned, or are transitioning, back to some form of in-person work after being forced indoors by the pandemic - although some, like essential workers, never left. However, this ‘return to normalcy’ comes with its own new set of problems. Many companies are in the midst of the messy transition back to work, or possibly in the throes of backlash for some of their previous decisions. There may be ways to shift and adapt that will smooth the transition and possibly rectify any previous missteps.
Research shows an overwhelming amount of people feeling anxious at the prospect of returning to in-person work and the regular interactions that come with it. In order, sources of return-to-work stress include being exposed to COVID-19 (77%), the loss of work flexibility (71%), the added commute (68%), having to wear a mask while in the office (54%) and a need for childcare (22%). Additionally, barely half of employees reported feeling like their company cares about them, and only 16% strongly felt so - a harsh drop from 31% in 2020.
These statistics point to a significant level of new stressors from this transition, so how do companies decide the extent to which they will go back to in-person work? The following segments outline the various positive aspects of remote, hybrid, and in-person work, as well as relevant information about the COVID variants to be considered when deciding how to most effectively transition both the company and its employees.
Many variants of COVID-19 have begun circulating around the globe. The different variants pose varying levels of risk. The Alpha and Beta variants both boast approximately 50% increased transmission compared to the non-mutated COVID-19 strain, and the Alpha variant, based on hospitalizations and fatality rates, potentially increases severity. The Delta variant is also linked to increased transmissibility, spreading 50% faster than the Alpha variant.
All three of these variants are classified by the CDC as part of the ‘Variant[s] of Concern’ category, and as of yet, there are no variants in the ‘Variant(s) of High Consequence’ category. William Hanage, an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health, explained in an interview that an unvaccinated person with Delta infection is roughly twice as likely to require hospital treatment than a person infected with the previously dominant variant. All the commotion about these variants is bound to be a source of stress for those returning to in-person work to any extent, so it is important for employers to stay educated and informed about these risks, both for personal safety and to best mitigate the stress and worries of employees.
Read our article, Navigating the Ever-Changing Landscape of a World with COVID-19, to learn some tips and strategies for steering your company and employees through these tumultuous waters.
During their time in lockdown and quarantine, many employees found themselves thriving while working from home for a variety of reasons, and do not wish to go back to in-person work. Stuck at home, Americans were able to spend much more time with their family and pets, and many strengthened their relationships as a result. Additionally, remote work often comes with a more flexible schedule and resultantly much more control over one’s work-life balance. Many employees found this aspect invaluable, and desire to continue to work remotely even as the world begins to shift back to in-person work.
Concurrently with employees finding remote to be more gratifying, some companies found themselves to be even more successful while having their staff be fullyl remote. Certain jobs simply function better (or at least at the same level of effectiveness) remotely, so it was a joyful discovery for these companies to realize there is no need to switch back to an office setting.
However, companies that decide to continue to work remotely may benefit from providing employees with resources to work more effectively from home. As an example, some employers have provided a small budget for each employee to purchase a more comfortable chair to account for hours of sitting at their desk all day. Despite the cost, small gestures such as this can reduce stress and also help maintain productivity and effectiveness, as an employee’s home office is likely not as equipped as that of the workplace.
Many of the same strategies that were applied last year at the onset of the pandemic to boost employee morale and overall wellness while working remotely should continue to be applied now, albeit in different ways. For example, interactions with family and friends were severely limited at the beginning of the quarantine, so communication with them via technology was the only option. Now that in-person interactions are permitted, both indoors and outdoors, employers should stress that employees can reduce stress even more by spending time with their family and friends in person. Of course, companies that choose to continue to work remotely will face their own set of obstacles, but the lack of that transition period back to in-person work and resultant stress is a definite positive.
While some industries can flourish while being fully remote, there are other fields, such as those requiring interactions between people, where parts of the job are more effectively conducted in person. In this case, going back in-person a couple days a week is the best of both worlds. According to a study, 85% of people say they build stronger, more meaningful business relationships during in-person meetings and conferences. A separate study found that 95% of people say face-to-face meetings are a key factor in successfully building and maintaining long-term business relationships.
Face-to-face meetings play an important role in the business world, and it is clear that even with some job functions being conducted remotely, many will go back to in-person at least a small part of the time. Additionally, some people, despite being able to effectively complete their work from home, are simply sick of being stuck inside, and desire to return to an office environment just to see people and have a sense of normalcy. Despite this, 68% of respondents in a study said they want to continue having remote work and other flexibility options once the pandemic ends. Working in-person for only a couple days out of the week - for necessary in-person tasks, or just to have regular interaction - is an excellent choice which provides a balance between the aspects of the job best done in-person, and also takes into account the desires of employees.
Although people adjusted as best as they could during the work-from-home period, some jobs only work effectively in person. Essential jobs such as food service and healthcare never had the opportunity to be remote. But for those fully transitioning back to in-person work for the first time in over a year, the stress is sure to be significant. The same physical workplace that employees spent their days in pre-pandemic now has an uneasy undercurrent that cannot be ignored.
So how can both employers and employees reduce stress in a workplace that has so many new connotations? If distancing makes employees more comfortable, employers may benefit from providing spaced-out desks and cubicles. Specific employees who are more stressed about exposure may choose to work in areas a little more secluded for their own peace of mind. People with medical conditions that prevent them from receiving the vaccine will be faced with much more stress than their vaccinated coworkers and may feel more comfortable wearing a mask and staying distant, as well.
Even if fully vaccinated, other employees may also feel more comfortable continuing to wear a mask in the workplace despite it not being mandated. Additionally, both employers and employees may actually benefit from live plants in the workplace, according to multiple studies. The results of the studies suggest that an office which enables employees to be within close sight of plants contributes not only to reduced anxiety and stress, but also to increased productivity compared to offices with minimal decoration or greenery. Finally, getting into the routine of a typical workday beforehand is one effective way to ease the transition back to in-person work. For jobs which are best done solely in-person, the full transition back to in-person work is sure to be stressful, but a necessary obstacle to overcome for productivity and effectiveness.
Undoubtedly, there are many considerations to weigh when deciding about the extent to which to return to in-person work. So how should companies decide? Smaller companies may benefit from direct conversations, one-on-one or in groups, to figure out the key issues with both remote and in-person work. In contrast, larger companies may find it best to send out a survey to employees as a means for gauging the general opinion.
Unfortunately, there will be some cases when the opinions and desires of the employees simply do not coincide with those of the company, especially if people want to stay remote yet the job cannot be completed as effectively and efficiently as it could be in-person. 56% of responders in a study reported that their organization hadn’t even asked for their opinions about returning to work and the policies and procedures regarding it. A lack of communication can cause distrust and stress for employees, especially if they feel their opinions will be actively ignored. So, while it is ultimately up to individual companies to make the decision, transparency and communication are key in maintaining a healthy, supportive work environment and ensure the least amount of stress for everyone.
If there will be a switch from remote to in-person on any level, it can also be beneficial for organizations to provide help throughout the transition period as people adjust to a new normal. Overall, every organization is different and navigating the balance between the needs of the company, employees, and stakeholders will be essential for continued success.
If an organization has already made the decision about fully remote, hybrid, or completely back, there may have been some fallout from employees who disagreed with the decision. How can companies shift and support the unhappy employees while still holding true to the decision they felt was best overall?
First, companies can double check their decision, just to be sure it really was the best one. Did they consider all options? Is there another way? If the answer is still the same, perhaps there can be some flexibility for certain employees. A first step would be to find out exactly what the employees are unhappy about. For instance, employers who decided to fully return to work could send out a survey to find out what the employees liked about remote work to see if they could incorporate any aspects of it into the shared office space. They could also find out how employees were feeling about the return and where the stressors lie so they could better set up their in-person office space to accommodate and support those who are scared of catching COVID-19, as an example.
Employees want to be heard and seen. They want their opinions to mean something. They want to be asked. Employers who take the time to find out how they can better support their employees – even after the fact – will fare much better than employers who don’t bother at all.
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