on returning to on-site work: three small EQ tips with a big impact for managers

Despite the fireworks and celebrations, have you detected a vague scent of dread when you talk about returning to work on-site full-time? Companies are revving up with policies and plans, preparations are underway to get us all back to “normal.” Sorta.

We each have had a different experience during this lockdown adventure. There’s been a well-reported spike in puppy acquisition, sourdough enthusiasts, nurturers of house plants, and of course, endless digital meetings. Now, it’s back to on-site work. What does that mean for you, the manager, whose teams will be returning? You must articulate the needs of the company or department while taking into account the needs of your team.

These three tips may help you navigate with a little more emotional intelligence in the middle of planning. Especially when your staff (and you) may be feeling like they’re coming out of a muddy swamp.

First, recognize the conflicts people may be experiencing. The stakes are high here, so if someone is quietly struggling, pay attention. It can surface as a timid (or aggressive!) question in a chat. Sure, we’re post-Covid and mostly vaccinated, but it wasn’t that long ago that we were collectively scared. Now the working world is demanding yet another big pivot. A junior staffer told me, “When I heard we were all expected to be back in the office full-time next month I felt a bubble of panic growing in my chest. It’s not that I haven’t worked really hard this year, but to lose the flexibility in my days? I’ve seriously considered quitting.”

Second, acknowledge their challenges and conflicts. Make room for individual conversations with your staff, rather than an electronic survey. Ask them directly what they have missed about being together in the office. Ask them what they’re worried about. It often demands great courage for a staff member to bring concerns to the manager. So reach out first. Directly invite conversation. Taking the time to do this in a one-on-one way allows you to observe body language and tone of voice. If they’re feeling conflicted, it does not mean your staff does not want to work. It just means that we all have mixed feelings about the process. One person expressed the range of his feelings, “Remote working was awful. We were all scared, terrified really. My grandmother died of Covid. We felt trapped. Every time I scheduled another digital meeting, I screamed inside.” He went on, “Now I’m looking forward to problem-solving in person. But this last year,” here he paused for a long time, “I spent more time with my two teenage boys than I ever would’ve gotten a chance to do, and I’ve been so grateful for that. And quite frankly, I’ll miss those moments. I’m a little afraid of getting sucked back in.”

And finally, where ever possible, adapt. Add bespoke flexibility to your company policy. There is a race for talent, so it’s time to truly assess your needs to assure that you retain the right folks on the job. Can you offer three days on-site and two remote? Can you begin those first weeks in the office with a later start time to allow for commuter adjustments? Can you ease into on-site work in some other way that works for you? Can you announce a scheduled reassessment meeting to assure the team that you’re committed to working out best practices? Most industries are developing return-to-on-site work policies that are necessarily broad-spectrum. If you can tailor yours to the realities of your team’s needs, you’ll be ahead of the game in retaining your quality staff.

No matter what policy you land on, wisely leverage the game-changing lessons we learned during remote work. Recognize the impact of the last year on your staff, acknowledge their conflicts, and adapt where possible.