Insight |

How to manage employee anxiety over the “return to office”


How to manage employee anxiety over the “return to office”

Insight |

How to manage employee anxiety over the “return to office”

intelliHR CEO & Founder Rob Bromage gives his insights on employee anxiety over returning to the office and how leaders can manage this issue.

A recent article in The Age –  ‘It was always a pipe dream’: Returning – or not – to the office’ – is worthwhile reading for anyone in Australia about to welcome employees back into the office.

For many people, the prospect of getting back into the office is a welcome one. The removal of mask mandates for most workplaces is symbolic of a return to “normal” and, hopefully, an opportunity to put the disruption of the last two years behind us.

But, it would be a mistake for us to assume that this is a universally shared opinion among all employees in any organization. After all, one of the first lessons we learn about change management is that change affects people differently.

The Age identified a number of reasons why individuals may be reluctant to return to the office from the continuing risk of contracting COVID-19 through to a desire to preserve the flexibility that many have found working from home. There are likely many more motives and while it’s tempting to think of these concerns as outliers, our own analysis suggests otherwise.

For a significant proportion of the workforce, the prospect of a return to working predominantly in the office is a change almost as significant as the transition to hybrid and remote work.

With employee wellbeing tools a key part of the intelliHR software, we know that this change has been such a significant one from talking to customers, over the last two years, who use these tools to enable leaders to support the wellbeing and productivity of their teams.

How it works is that the wellbeing features use Natural Language Processing, a form of artificial intelligence, to analyze content that employees have shared on the platform like feedback, reviews, and comments to identify positive and negative employee sentiment. From there, the organization’s HR managers can gauge how their team members are feeling and performing; it’s like a temperature check for employee morale.

When you look across the entire platform, in aggregate, you start to get a picture of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis across a large number of workplaces. More than 130,000 people have used intelliHR which is much larger than many individual companies.

monthly mean sentiment score

Throughout the pandemic, sentiment across the entire platform has tracked broadly as you might expect based on what was happening with case numbers. The biggest decline came in March and April of 2020 as the first wave of pandemic disruption hit.

But in September and October of last year, something unexpected happened.

As infection numbers subsided and Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT began to emerge from their months-long lockdown, net sentiment across the intelliHR platform decreased, instead of increasing (as might have been expected).

We theorized, at the time, that while people were happy to see children go back to school and shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs re-open, a significant number were less excited about the prospect of being asked to come back into the office.

In November, I heard similar feedback from leaders when I traveled in the UK, Canada and USA.

As if to prove the point, in December, as Omicron arrived and case numbers surged to unthinkable levels, driving many places back into unofficial lockdowns, sentiment began to trend back up.

It makes sense when you think about it. After all, it’s been almost two years. That’s more than enough time for habits to become embedded. Working remotely has gone from being the “new normal” to just normal and a return to the office feels like a disruptive change.

It’s also worth considering that many people have started new roles remotely. For example here at intelliHR, more than 60% of the team that we’ve hired over the last two years have been onboarded completely remotely. This means there’s a whole cohort of people who have never worked for their company in the office.

So, what should organizations do? Our data suggests, and this week’s story in The Age illustrates, that there’s a significant and widespread level of anxiety in the workforce about returning to the office. This sentiment would be unwise for any HR team to ignore.

Here is my take on some tangible actions we can take as leaders:

  1. Recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be the most effective – By all means, we can welcome those who are happy to return to the office with incentives like those reported in the Australian Financial Review. But we must know that, for some, no number of perks will make a difference.
    • Note: Time is a factor here. We know that people adjust to change at different rates. For much of the last two years, each time we got close to a return to the office there was a surge in case numbers and it was back to remote work. Some employees will just need time to adjust.
  2. Remember that a policy is only as good as how it’s put into practice – Managers will need training and development on how to best manage the transition period and support their teams. After all, we want to continue to support employee wellbeing now as we have been doing.
  3. Understand that this is a marathon; not a sprint – Two years of workplace disruption have taken their toll on employees. Our analysis suggests worker morale is still well below the level it was at in December 2019 when Australia was in the grip of the tragic bushfires.

Our 2022 State of HR survey reported that 92% of HR teams are actively monitoring employee engagement and wellbeing (and mental health). That’s an encouraging result because, after all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

But, worryingly, only 30% said they had a plan in place to manage wellbeing and mental health within their organization. This must be a focus for us in 2022 and beyond if we’re to flatten the curve when it comes to the effects of the pandemic on employee wellbeing.

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