Evolution of the Office: Caring for Mental Health Needs As Employees Return

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Credit: Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

By Mark Debus, MSW, LCSW, Behavioral Health Team Lead, Sedgwick

Our concept of the traditional office workplace shifted historically in 2020 and there’s no going back. Over the decades, workplaces have transformed from offices with doors to cubicle “farms,” to long desktop workstations and open floorplan arrangements. Now we have reached another inflection point after 18 months of working out of our homes, kitchens, spare bedrooms and everywhere in between.

But after months of uncertainty, employees are finally packing up their home workstations and going back to their employer’s physical office locations either part time or full time. However, many workers are not too thrilled about that prospect.

An August 2021 survey by The Conference Board found that more than one-third of U.S. workers may leave their job within the next six months, and of those workers, 80% cite that flexible work arrangements are an important factor in that decision to leave.

If flexible work arrangements are so important, but at the same time hiring quality talent is so difficult, the key question for companies to ask themselves about their return to office plans: Why?

Asking why is an essential question to the modern office conundrum. Employers have a business need for teams to perform their best and for managers to enable high performance. In 2021, this is shaping up in a nontraditional way – so what does the evolved workplace look like and how can employers meet their staff’s new needs?

Jobs might be the same, but employees have changed

Evolution is the product of successful adaptation over time. In the case of the recent health crisis, workers were subject to a big change over a long enough period of time that everybody adjusted to something new. People who have been working from home since March 2020 are now used to the differences in their life, from commuting time to meal preparation to new pets acquired during lockdowns. Many parents have reclaimed family time and have found new ways to adapt to kids’ schedules with schooling.

These changes are rooted in something much deeper than schedules and meeting times – lifestyle quality factors are at the core of workers’ desires to stay at home. After 18 months tuned into our colleagues’ living rooms over zoom, we have adapted to the idea that employees are people with lives that don’t necessarily revolve around work. Our concept of a meaningful work life balance has changed in a way that can’t be undone, and employers must adapt accordingly.

Management has also changed

Workers’ mindsets have changed, but leaders at the top or even mid-level managers of large teams have also experienced a shift in their work style and priorities.

In recent months, managers have found that people management strategies that worked two years ago do not work today. The evidence: employees have quit in droves, finding new roles where they don’t have to face stressful work styles or tough management practices.

Leaders and managers should focus on fostering mental health and growth on their teams to counteract the swift departure of so many disgruntled workers. Employers need to be proactive in building flexibility for employees – even if this means staffs must return to the office, for leaders to succeed in implementing return to office, they need to provide flexibility in scheduling to adapt to workers’ desires to meet their specific lifestyle needs. This may mean adaptable log-on times, hybrid work plans, four day work weeks, or more flex time options, depending on a company or its client’s business goals.

Thoughtful preparation and communication are key for leaders

Amidst shifts in attitude from both workers and managers, CEOs or leaders who set the agenda for the future workplace should plan return-to-office steps carefully.

They should communicate plans months in advance and touch base with employees often, or they may be surprised when employees react to too quick a change and leave the company. Ideally, people need at least 6-8 weeks to plan for a return to office change – this is especially important for workers who need to make changes in their child care arrangements due to day care shortages or inconsistent school reopenings.

Leaders should also plan to communicate either through one-on-one conversations with employees or on teamwide video calls, rather than over email. The silence that is intrinsic in email communications with remote workers just doesn’t work for major shifts like a return to office – people need human touchpoints.

To aid with easing the shift back to the office, a well-being check-in questionnaire for employees can both help identify employees who may need individualized flexibility or extra coaching, and create one-on-one coaching plans designed for employee mental health and retention. Leaders must accept that returning to the office will be stressful for many employees post-pandemic, even those who are open to coming back. Some employees are actually excited to go back but may experience stress from any big changes in their life.

Adapting return to office

Once employees start to come back to the office, however flexibly, the attention to employee attitudes does not stop – remember, evolution is permanent. Managers should be trained on how to look for mental health warning signs, such as burnout, anxiety and isolation, at all levels of the organization.

Leaders are encouraged to acknowledge and share some of their own challenges. Shared experiences can help reassure employees that they are not alone in coping with these situations.

While the rest of the year will see workers continue adapting to a society-wide evolution, leading with honesty, flexibility and human decency will help ease the change employees feel and encourage them to stay part of your team.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.