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Many jurisdictions, governments, and health agencies are reducing restrictions across various sectors as cases of the Delta and Omicron variants decrease. Many economies are seeking to return to business.  

However, as many are aware, this isn’t business as usual. Individuals, employees, and employers are having to approach their business functions and organizational culture differently.  This requires leadership to show their adaptability to the ever-changing environment in order to guide their employees back into the workplace. 

Returning to work, depending on your professional circumstances, may feel different, particularly if you’re returning to an office setting. Whether you’re part-time or full-time, this might feel stressful. This may lead to uncomfortable feelings and even anxiety.  

The working population in general had to make significant adjustments during the pandemic. Making the transition back into the office or work environment requires employers and human resources mangers to handle the situation using their emotional intelligence (EQ). Leaders will need to be empathetic, self-aware, motivate, and develop the ability to find common ground to  build meaningful relationships. Employers will also have to show their vulnerability in managing the process of change. 

For many employees, a great deal will have changed. The physical office space might be re-organized. The space or cubical an employee once occupied for years might have moved and proximity to others shifted. Conversations that once took place at the water cooler or in the lunchroom may no longer be possible. Instead, it’s whether a person has been vaccinated or not. These are difficult issues to comprehend and adjust to both physically and emotionally. 

On a personal level, employees had to significantly change their work life, habits, and routines. According to Lauren Wethers, PWC, for people with pre-existing conditions, returning to the re-opened workplace can feel risky while “home is safe.” She says experts predict the second transition is harder.  

It must also be recognized that people have gone through important life changes in the process. Some may have lost loved ones, cared for their elderly parents, their children at home and working, others may have faced job losses and any number of changes in their lives. 

In addition, people have developed new habits and norms for working over the past two years. Their communication styles, commute to work, clothing habits, and how they engage with the general public has changed. Others may question whether they can still engage in the family habits they developed over the pandemic period. Will they still have the time and work-life balance they’re now accustomed to? These are important considerations for both employers and employees. 

In adapting to the new way of doing business, there must be some acknowledgement of the change. For the employer and employee to get the maximum benefit from their work situation, strong communication, relationship building, trust, purposeful and intentional interaction is essential. Each party needs to lay out clearly what is most appropriate to meet their needs. It’s also important to recognize that remote working is here to stay and some form of hybrid working arrangement will be of benefit to all concerned. 

According to Dr. Keith Dobson, professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Calgary, many people are facing a new set of concerns about return or re-entry to work. Many will face heightened anxiety about the risk of being infected, new social expectations, and adjustment to the new work realities. 

Employers have to be mindful that the feeling of re-entry or return to the workplace will be different for everyone. Some will be eager to return to the workspace while others might find it difficult to make the transition of leaving the safety of their homes and remote working to re-enter the workspace. Starting to socialize with co-workers may include setting parameters. Being mindful about personal safety might help reduce anxiety. 

Wellness Together Canada is a good place to start to help manage the situation. A further consideration to combat these feelings of anxiety includes employers and human resource managers following appropriate public health guidelines. We need to recognize that different places or organizations have different rules. Respecting boundaries and personal space means everyone has a responsibility for each other’s physical and psychological safety in the workspace. 

As employees return or re-enter into the workspace, Chris Cancialosi, a contributor to Forbes, offers some insights. He suggests feelings of anxiety about returning from remote working are experiences shared the world over. What makes the situation so powerful is that they’re unique and shared by both individuals and communities. Everyone has had to rethink how to balance work and family. People collectively had to adapt to new ways of doing the simplest things in order to survive COVID-19 and its variants. No, they need to do it again in order to continue to thrive. 

Cancialosi invites both employers and employees to consider the following key points that might be useful in coping with, adapting to, and navigating the new work environment. 

  1. Be graceful with yourself and others. This is a new and unique situation everyone is going through in some form or fashion. Despite our best efforts, mistakes will be made. Give yourself space to be patient and understanding with yourself and others as we work to find “the new.” 
  2. Be prepared. Understanding yourself, your needs, and your “signals” will help you be attuned to how you’re reacting to the changes you’re going through. Get ahead of things to when possible. The situation will, no doubt, continue to evolve, but you can find some comfort in being in control of what you can influence.
  3. Talk to your coworkers and employer. You’re not going through this by yourself and the questions you have are shared by others. Find ways to engage others in dialogue about the realities of the situation, what is known, what is not, and the path forward. If you’re comfortable being vulnerable, find ways to productively share your emotions and fears about the future. Let people know what you need so they can help.
  4. Breathe. When the anxiety of the unknown begins to swell, sometimes the best first step is simply to stop for a beat and breathe. There are plenty of fantastic resources out there to help guide you in learning how to pause, breathe, and recentre yourself.
  5. Get help. If you’re finding the anxiety associated with these changes is becoming too much to manage, you need to be honest with yourself and acknowledge it may be time to reach out to someone who can assist. 

Over the past two years, I’ve worked with numerous organizations of all sizes in various sectors at the national and international level. I’ve gained considerable insights into their ways of managing the current crisis of change in workplace practices. From what I observed, here are some suggestions employers and employees might find useful. 

Employers and employees are encouraged to recognize that these circumstances are unique. In order to maintain an effective workforce during these times and to build confidence for the return to work, employers need to review their current policies and adapt to new ones. 

Many people frequently talk about returning to normal. The fact is something significant happened that impacted the entire world of work, our behaviors, our lives, and how we view the world. In order to move forward, everyone in the workspace must acknowledge a change has occurred, which shifted the ground and shaken the foundation of our world in every aspect of our lives. We need to move forward in a way that maintains productivity and an effective workspace. 

Here are a few things to consider: 

  • Be clear about what is expected of individuals who are returning or re-entering the office.  
  • Employers must work in conjunction and in collaboration with unionized and non-unionized workers, and abide by the polices and new practices.  
  • Employers and employees need to consider how many days they will come into the office to assist with the changing environment. 
  • Employers and employees may have the same feelings of anxiety about r-entering the workspace. Having conversations with each other might assist in reducing those feelings. Speaking honestly and sharing stories can be uplifting and help foster positive feelings.  
  • In these uncertain times, everyone needs to draw on their emotional intelligence and be empathic, self-aware, practice self-regard, and seek to motivate each other.  
  • Employers and employees should communicate uneasy feelings. Listen to each other without making judgement, or resorting to stereotypes and bias.  
  • Each organization is unique and will experience return or re-entry into the workplace differently. Reactions to a new workspace and environment won’t be the same for everyone. 
  • Organizational and cultural change is hard and it takes time to adjust, accommodate, and adapt.  
Ann Divine

Ann Divine, founder and CEO of Ashanti Leadership and Professional Development Services. Her consultancy provides extensive services in Leadership Development, Cultural and Organizational Change Management through Diversity and Inclusion lens.

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