Call it work’s next new normal.

After more than a year of being completely remote, organizations are carefully weighing return-to-work options. But sanitation and physical safety aren’t their only considerations — rightly, HR leaders are worried about employee mental health during the transition. They’re also wary about taking back too much flexibility, as nearly 90% of workers would prefer to keep the option of working remotely at least part-time.

There are thoughtful, practical ways to address those concerns leading up to reopening. We asked HR leaders, organizational psychologists, and health experts for their advice on helping employees cope with returning to work.

1. Start a two-way dialogue.

Madina Estephan, a medical doctor and healthcare training consultant, has spent decades helping individuals and organizations navigate health challenges. Whether she’s coaching teams on nutrition, burnout, or return-to-work planning, her overarching mantra stays the same: when it comes to employee health, over-communication is key.

“Psychologically, any change is easier to accept if we discuss it before it happens,” Estephan said. She advised that HR teams communicate their plans months, not weeks, in advance of reopening. Pandemics are personal, and not everyone’s return-to-work readiness will be aligned. “Yes, one of the main obstacles is a fear of getting the disease. But there might be some other reasons for that anxiety, which are less evident,” she said.

Not sure what those reasons are? Ask. Conduct an employee survey, host a virtual all-hands meeting, or schedule smaller workshops to get at the heart of employee concerns. “You need to understand what the real obstacles are, so ask employees: ‘How do you imagine working in the office again?’ and ‘What are you afraid of, and how can we help you navigate those obstacles?” Estephan said. “Give employees an opportunity to shape those changes, and you’ll find that solutions actually exist.”

2. Support working parents. 

During the first months of the pandemic, Maven research found that nearly 60% of working parents felt unsupported by their employers. As time went on, companies started investing in additional benefits like flexible scheduling, childcare stipends, and return-to-work coaching. HR leaders stressed that the need for those benefits doesn’t become less pressing just because you’re transitioning back to on-site work.

“Everyone, especially working parents, has a lot going on in their lives, and unfortunately, wellness seems to be one of the first things to get cut,” said Alison Pearson, Head of HR at Hal Waldman and Associates. She noted that even in cities where school-age children are back to onsite learning, summer breaks are just a few short months away — and release valves like daycare or summer camps are either already booked or prohibitively expensive. Employer-sponsored vouchers for babysitting services, childcare stipends, or other financial relief could help make a difference. 

Mothers, in particular, shouldered a heavy load during what’s been called an economic “Shesession.” Record numbers of women have left the workforce, either through being furloughed or needing to care for children. Career reentry programs like returnships and return-to-work counseling can help bring mothers back into the workforce.

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3. Prioritize mental health and virtual care.

Nearly half of Americans reported adverse mental health effects due to the pandemic — and experts believe many of those feelings could resurface or peak as workers transition back to the office. Mindfulness programs, employee assistance programs (EAPs), and virtual counseling can help employees cope in the weeks ahead.

“Now’s the time to connect your people with trained professionals, like counselors and therapists. If you haven’t already, review your benefits plans to make sure it covers mental health services,” said Tim Mousseau, an HR consultant that educates leaders on how to build safer, more inclusive workplaces. Rather than simply offer these benefits, he stressed that companies should be actively pushing their use.

And if your company expanded your virtual health care offerings throughout the pandemic, don’t let up now. Last year, many were introduced to the convenience of telehealth services — and according to a recent survey, almost 88% of US workers plan to continue using them well after the health crisis.

“With people returning to office environments, employees will likely have ongoing concerns about wellbeing — and your people may have gotten used to seeking out virtual mental health services over the last year,” Mousseau said. “Ensure that you have flexible policies that allow employees to seek out virtual health services, whether doctors or mental health professionals, without needing to take time off.”

4. Stay flexible (and not just with scheduling).

Before the pandemic, most employees associated flexibility with scheduling. Fast forward, employee needs and expectations have evolved. Working parents have been juggling childcare, virtual schooling, and full-time work for months, and nearly 90% of working mothers say they would leave a job for an opportunity that better supports their work and life considerations moving forward.

Role permitting, some may need to work remotely for the foreseeable future while serving as caregivers. Similarly, those living in multigenerational households may be wary of risking their loved ones’ health. Others may be immunocompromised and wary of commuting in and out of work after a year of uncertainty.

Bottom line? Eschew the glitz of a “grand reopening” and work with employees on a case-by-case basis to assess their readiness. Pearson’s HR team ultimately landed on offering employees the right to choose when they’d return.

“After a lot of Zoom and Skype meetings on the subject, we determined that a very slow rollout plan will be implemented. What this means is that we will make it optional for our employees to return to the office rather than mandate that they all return to work by a certain date,” Pearson said. To her, “flexibility” in the new world of work means being comfortable meeting employees where they are. And given her law firm’s productivity as of late, making that case to leadership was easy. “Why should we fix what isn’t broken?” she asked.

Returning to work after months of being furloughed or remote isn’t simply a matter of flipping a switch and returning to “business as usual.” Employees will have to navigate a range of emotions — and HR leaders will need to offer empathetic, personalized support during that transition.

Maven is designed to help your team balance their work and their family lives. With programs including virtual return-to-work coaching, mental health counseling, childcare support, pediatrics, and more, our offerings help your team (and their families) navigate the new world of work. To find out how Maven can help working families in your workplace, request a demo today.

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