3rd August 2021

How to Gauge Your Team’s Anxiety Around Workplace Re-Entry

The number of office buildings reopening is rising. 

So is anxiety in the U.S. workforce. 

survey released last month by the American Psychological Association found that 49% of adults feel uneasy about returning to in-person interactions once the pandemic is over. 

The primary apprehension is health and safety in the workplace. According to a study by Envoy, a majority (66%) of employees say they are worried about their health and safety when returning to the office. Trepidation is more pronounced among people of color (78%) and Gen Z (under age 25) employees (75%) who fear a return to the workplace could compromise their health and well-being.

Safety and security are basic human needs that must be addressed in your return to the office plan. However, if you focus only on office re-entry logistics and tactics and do not address your team members’ anxiety, or communicate and are not clearly heard and understood by each employee, your office reopening could be difficult.

Here’s how to ensure a successful, smooth return to the office.

Reduce uncertainty.

The brain is a pattern recognition machine that is constantly trying to predict the future. It likes to know the pattern occurring moment to moment; it craves certainty, so prediction is possible. Any type of change generates uncertainty. It is the unknown; there is no pattern, and that can make you uneasy. 

Think about the roller coaster of emotions you’ve experienced during this pandemic as work and life norms were constantly and radically disrupted. Now think about how you feel when you hear a familiar song on the radio and sing along with the lyrics. You relax because your brain immediately recognizes the pattern.

To support your team members’ transition back to the office, build more certainty into the process. 

For example:

  • Communicate what you don’t know or what is still undecided. When you acknowledge and state the gaps and unknowns in your plan, the transparency eases apprehension.
  • Provide team members a picture or layout of the office space so they can see exactly how the space is configured.
  • Explicitly describe the steps to “reserve” a space in the office.
  • If you are using an online software program or app to coordinate when and where people will work, provide screenshots, quick reference guides, and video tutorials on how to use the technology.
  • Outline clear expectations and guidelines for in-personal interactions, eating in the office and using the breakroom, and the specific materials and supplies you will and will not provide to support your team members completing their work.

Specificity and transparency support the brain’s need for certainty. Your employees and their brains will relax once they know what to expect.

Use “whole-brained” communication and “walk the matrix.”     

Each person on your team thinks and communicates differently. Ensure that you are heard and understood by each person on your team. “Walk the matrix” in every communication and team member interaction by answering what, how, who, and why.  

  • What? Identify the goal, purpose, or objective.
  • How? Identify the action steps to achieve the goal, purpose, or objective.
  • Who? Identify who is involved to achieve the goal, purpose, or objective. 
  • Why? Identify why this goal, purpose, or objective matters to the individual, team, and the company.
Ensure your communication passes the “champagne test.”     

“Stop boiling the ocean and give me a 20,000-foot view on your deck since I have a hard stop before my SME touch base EOD…” Ambiguous communication creates uncertainty. Your communication must be clear, straightforward, and specific. 

Ask yourself:

  • Could you restate the central idea or primary point in two sentences or less? 
  •  If you were not a team member in this organization, would you understand what you wanted me to think, do, or say because of your communication?
  • Does my communication pass the “champagne test” – your team knows when to pop the cork and celebrate the successful achievement of the goal.

Your team is disruption and change weary. Add in fears and concerns around health and safety in the workplace, and employee anxiety soars. Now is the time to ensure your return to the office plans, vaccine policies, and safety protocols are specific, visible, clearly communicated, and create as much certainty as possible for your team.

Download this guide to help you develop a holistic re-entry plan without undermining productivity, performance, and employee engagement.