3 Ways Leaders Can Support a Return to the Workplace

Danielle Forth

After over 15 months of working from home, many employees will be returning to their pre-COVID workplaces. With the rollout of vaccines and easing of public health restrictions, many workplaces are planning to return to a new normal when it comes to business operations.

Some will be returning with high levels of anxiety and uncertainty about what the new normal will look like, while others will be eager to get back to their desks and see colleagues in real life. Some may even be feeling ambivalent about returning, preferring the comfort and convenience of working from home. The challenge for organizations will be to ascertain and respond to the varying concerns of employees and to reengage them in the organization’s core mission.

Strengthen Connections with Employees

Throughout the pandemic employees may have experienced some combination of decreased social interaction, increased stress, and grief and loss. Leaders need to be sensitive to the mental health impact the pandemic has had on staff, and those who take time to identify and acknowledge these diverse effects of the pandemic are well positioned to help build employees’ resiliency.

Ways to do this:

  • Invest time in having authentic, compassionate conversations with staff about the emotional impact of the pandemic. Actively listen and be mindful of feedback when given. These conversations might seem uncomfortable, but they can help increase trust and connection with leadership and the organization. Not every employee will feel comfortable sharing their feelings in a conversation, so consider using anonymous surveys to get a sense of how employees are feeling about returning to work. Use what you learn from these conversations to address employees’ concerns so they know they are being taken seriously.
  • Ensure that employees know about Employee Assistance Program (EAP) resources and how to access them. Actively encourage them to use these resources.
  • Prioritize your own self-care practices to ensure that your ability to lead and connect is not compromised by your workload.
Invest time in having authentic, compassionate conversations with staff about the emotional impact of the pandemic.

Support Employees to Reconnect with Purpose

The pandemic created significant disconnection in our personal and professional lives. For those working from home, it meant a disruption in the familiarity of work routines and relationships. Many were thrown into survival mode and may have become disconnected from the organization’s mission or purpose. Supporting staff to reconnect and participate in achieving the organization’s purpose is integral to productivity, performance, and prosperity in the new normal.

Ways to do this:

  • Create safe spaces for staff that promote psychological and emotional safety. Employees who feel safe and comfortable with showing their emotions demonstrate higher levels of engagement at work.
  • Invest in employee wellness programs by providing things like wellness-themed training and workshops. Promote a workplace culture where people feel safe to speak up early about any concerns they might have with their well-being or that of a colleague’s.
  • Ensure all leaders in the organization lead by example. Keep in mind that in many organizations, the majority of staff likely don’t know the organization’s mission statement or the role they play in achieving the mission. Leaders need to walk the talk of the organization’s culture and mission.

Expect More Change

The return to work will be highly dependent on the unpredictable status of the COVID-19 virus. The process of employees returning to work will likely not be smooth and linear, which is why communication during uncertainty becomes even more important. Leaders need to clearly communicate that the health, safety, and well-being of staff and workplace visitors is the top priority (i.e., putting safety above profits). They also need to communicate what steps the organization is taking to ensure compliance with federal, provincial/state, and local orders to manage potential virus outbreaks in an accurate, timely, and transparent fashion. Clear communication will help alleviate employee anxiety as well as increase morale and trust in leadership.

Ways to do this:

  • Recognize that the prevalence and impacts of COVID-19 vary significantly from region to region and that some organizations may be at greater risk of exposure to the virus. When determining when employees should return to the workplace, it’s crucial to review and understand all relevant municipal and provincial/state orders as well as guiding documents from industry associations and local health departments. Consult reopening for business resources available at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Act quickly to implement recommended public health measures and ensure that staff know how these measures are being applied, the timeline, and how the measures will be monitored and enforced.
  • Consider reading the resources gathered by the Canadian Mental Health Association that address the mental health impact of the pandemic. Another resource to consider is the book, Coronavirus: Leadership and Recovery.

The workplace challenges caused by the pandemic are not over. Leaders will need to formulate action plans in the face of unpredictable circumstances and be prepared to adapt as events around the pandemic evolve. Creating a safe and secure environment for employees is key to ensuring the sustainability and survival of the organization. Understanding that everyone’s return to work will be different and meeting staff where they’re at in their journey with empathy, support, and encouragement is necessary for that survival.


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Author: Danielle Forth 
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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