Fear & Loathing in the Office: The case for a gradual return to work

‘Twas the night before my first in-person team meeting in over a year and all through the house, not a creature was stirring... except for me. Tossing and turning. Unable to calm my mind enough to fall asleep as I ran the scene in my head over and over.

The thought of getting properly dressed (will anything even fit?), driving downtown, parking, elevators, reception, greetings, coffee cups, bathrooms, walking into the boardroom, and speaking to a table full of people - in the same room! - completely overwhelmed me.

What was once a simple and regular activity now had me up all night, panicked at the thought of going back to some version of “normal.”

In the end it was fine. However, I am not eager to do it again anytime soon! Which I imagine is how many of your team members are feeling about coming back to the office: they will need some time to get used to it.

The prospect of returning to a physical office environment will have as many reactions as there are people on your team - from excitement and relief for some, to sheer dread for others.

As someone who coaches leaders and employees through challenging situations, I believe we all need to look at this past year as a collective leave of absence due to a traumatic event and treat our return to work accordingly.

There has been a lot of conversation around mental health and COVID-19. The pandemic has undeniably affected all of us in different ways - and as a leader you need to be prepared to develop the flexibility needed to support your team. This is why I recommend a return to work post COVID should be treated similar to a return after a mental health leave.

When an employee is ready to return to work after a short-term or long-term leave, particularly if it is due to a mental health issue, the widely accepted advice is to ease them back in.

The idea of a gradual plan for an employee returning to work is to help them rebuild their routine and comfort over time, rather than throwing them in the deep end - which not only risks another leave but may also result in lower engagement and ultimate turnover. A gradual plan is typically created to help reintegrate workers in a supportive way and its purpose is to formalize the steps for a safe and successful return to work, which can have undeniable benefits for both employers and employees.

Employers can enjoy increased employee engagement, proactive cost containment, reduced turnover, increased communication, and improved morale with an established return to work plan. And it’s been proven that employees who go through return to work plans are able to get back to work quicker than those who don’t, meaning that employers will see increased productivity following an employee’s return to work.

Employees benefit from gradual return to work plans as they feel supported and understood by their employer, which increases their engagement and loyalty to the company. Going through a return to work plan also helps them get back to work faster and increases the likelihood that they feel secure and stable in their role.

Here are 5 best in practice ways you can support your team in their return to work:

  1. Ensure they are ready to return to work (and what that could look like). The first and most important step is to ask if they are ready - and really listen. While you can’t let things drag on forever when you want to get back to normal, by asking if they are ready and inviting feedback on what it could look like, you are building a safe space where your team feels supported. If your team understands what your goal is (ie. getting everyone back into the office) then you are not asking them if it should happen, you are simply asking how. More often than not, you will be pleasantly surprised by the answers.

  2. Make reasonable adjustments. Again, this is all about moderation. If an employee breaks a bone or has a long-term illness, you may be required to think