Life after the pandemic: Tips for managing the return to the workplace

14 Jul 2021

In a matter of days, Covid restrictions in the UK are due to be dropped. Exciting news – yes – but for many of us this feels unsettling, raising almost as many questions as it answers. With the return to normal comes the return to the office – but what will that look like? And how can workplaces manage such an enormous transition without employees feeling overwhelmed?

What happens next?

Recent conversations with friends, neighbours and colleagues have made it clear that the future is likely to be a blend of pre-Covid working practices and lockdown adaptations.  For those returning to the workplace, this may well mean a much more flexible approach.

But it’s not just the practicalities that have changed. People are reporting a fog of Covid fatigue – clouding their interactions with colleagues and impacting their home life. 

The majority of people I’ve spoken to are fed up with Zoom, online working and conversations about what to watch on Netflix. Ultimately, we’re all missing human interaction and the opportunity for actual face time with someone outside of our ‘bubble’.

The anxiety ‘trap’

The flipside of all this potential change, and an interesting if alarming common denominator, is anxiety – something which everyone I’ve spoken to has mentioned they are dealing with to some degree. 

This spectrum of anxiety seems to manifest itself as a cloud of apprehension, causing worry and nervousness about the steps needed to return to normal life: restarting the commute for example, or reintegrating with colleagues in the office. 

Health and safety, what new workplace practices might look like, and the impact on physical and mental wellbeing are all areas of genuine concern.

Information overload

Whatever your level of exposure or personal experience, by anyone’s standards, Covid has created an enormous amount to deal with over the last 18 months, so it’s hardly surprising that many of us are struggling.  

Whether you have had Covid and treatment for the illness, are worrying about Long Covid, have been recently bereaved (whether Covid related or not), or are missing interactions with wider family and friends, the prolonged isolation and overwhelm can make daily life difficult and we overlook this trauma to our detriment.

What’s more, the huge amount of fake news and misinformation being peddled online, alongside ongoing campaigns by anti-vaxxers, often serve to compound these issues. The result is a highly charged backdrop and confrontational atmosphere that only adds to our anxiety.

So, what can we do to make the transition back to the workplace and life in a post-Covid era easier?

A safe and supportive transition

As a hostage and crisis negotiator for over 15 years, I’ve found some core themes to be universally helpful when uncertainty and anxiety are rife.  Here, I’ve condensed them down into four practical steps:

  1. Organisations should have a clear and transparent communications strategy – for both internal and external comms. This should be built around the 7 C’s of communication (clear, concise, concrete, correct, coherent, complete, and courteous). 

  2. Make time for talking and ensure the time and space for all staff to engage with the dialogue.  It’s equally important to listen to employees and take action based on their concerns. 

  3. Plan and prepare for the return and reintegration of staff to the office, but remain open-minded to new ideas and opportunities so that you can support them in the most appropriate way. Remember that additional change may well be an anxiety trigger, so be available, patient and compassionate as a line manager.  Having support yourself is also vital.

  4. Monitor and review the progress at each stage of the return/reintegration process, being ever mindful of the new Covid environment.  Internal workshops, an ‘ideas’ dropbox and forums to facilitate positive two-way communication will be essential.  Remember that you may need to adapt and even redesign your plans – so nothing should be set in stone.

Gaining control

Proactive support with health and safety at its centre will help staff to feel both safe and valued. Managing this transition carefully will also support their mental wellbeing, and encourage confidence in your leadership. 

Importantly, building a safer transition back to the workplace will signal the start of gaining a degree of control for all of us in this post-Covid era – something I’m sure we will all welcome.

If you or anyone in your team is struggling and needs some help during this challenging time, it’s important to know that there are support groups like MIND who can provide assistance.