Fear of Returning to Work or Cautiously Optimistic?

As the initial ‘sprint’ of getting organisations functioning remotely is slowing, thoughts are now turning to how we support people coming back into the office to work. This has been a theme in all of my client conversations over the last month, and as lockdown restrictions ease, they’re noticing a cautious mood among their employees – something I refer to as ‘the fear of returning’.

What do I mean by that?

It’s a feeling of a loss of control over the circumstances in which colleagues come back to work, that when they do it may feel as though it will never be the same as it was before. It’s worries about commuting, whether the journey itself could put them at risk of catching the virus or spreading it to others, as well as the unknowns involving schools, childcare and government support schemes that partners or family members may be reliant on. It’s not just their own circumstances either, it’s a fear that others’ actions are out of their control – whether that’s social distancing in the office or shop floor or being squeezed against people on public transport. Remember that we’ve been hit with a barrage of media images of people in masks or questionable physical distancing for the past couple of months, which will fuel any anxiety.

Colleagues will look to their leaders now to reassure them that the measures they have put in place for a return to work will keep them safe. These could be practical measures such as limiting the numbers of people in the office at any one time, staggering start times or organising shifts so people come in only on certain days. They will also look to leaders to see if the psychological contract still holds up and what’s changed. So, while many companies will now offer working from home as an option more permanently, people need to know that – even if they’re not visible – they’re trusted to get the job done and that they still feel part of the team. That also extends to the new notion of ‘virtual presenteeism’, the amount of time employees are expected to be ‘on’ and in work mode. Strict start and finish times may ebb away as some people prefer to deliver their work in the evening or early morning to fit around their own working preference and other commitments, and that doesn’t mean they have to respond to every email or direct message immediately.

Because the return to work will feel strange for many, employees will appreciate a level of certainty as to what is going to happen – this will help them to feel a little safer. That means being open and transparent about working arrangements and reassuring people that there are no stupid questions about returning. An easy way for companies to respond to this need is creating an accessible frequently asked questions (FAQ) list that is accessible to all or sharing questions people have asked at company meetings, including the responses.

A number of organisations are sending surveys out to employees to find out how they are feeling about returning to the workplace and what they would like to see in place. These range from a simple ‘are you happy to return to the office?’ to multiple questions about what would make them feel safe, how they would like to work in the future and how is their physical and mental wellbeing. Creating and running something like this shows that your organisation knows that one size does not fit all, that just as everyone’s experience of working from home has been different, so will their return.

Certainty and transparency are important, but just as crucial is flexibility. This return to work after an enforced period of remote working is something no organisation is likely to have encountered before – not on this scale. Everyone will have different personal circumstances. Some may have been ill with the virus and not left their home for weeks, or have faced difficult family events such as the loss of a loved one or grief around not being able to spend time with them. There will be colleagues who fall into higher risk health categories who, where possible, may need to continue working from home. It’s a good time for leaders to have open conversations with each of their team around their situation and how they would like to be supported to return to work. In some cases that may mean temporary or hybrid arrangements that are different from others in the team but are flexible and regularly reviewed. Let’s also remember that where colleagues want to work isn’t binary…there are many more options than ‘always in the office’ or ‘always working from home’.

It’s been a challenging few months for everyone, but the decisions we take now will shape our future working cultures - let’s make the decision for them to be more inclusive. 

This will be a change curve unlike others you may have experienced before, and colleagues will be at different stages on that curve. You may well make mistakes, which is why flexibility and openness is important and why ongoing decisions should be made based on colleague feedback as well as what’s good for the business. Stepping into the shoes of our colleagues, asking them what they really need (rather than making assumptions about what that might be), and putting those support mechanisms in place will go a long way to reducing that feeling of fear and creating a more positive and inclusive one of navigating what our new ways of operating will be together.


Charlotte Sweeney. OBE