Zoom Out: The big picture on transitioning remote employees to the office

A woman wearing a mask enters the physical office for the first time since the pandemic began.

Pandemic restrictions are loosening, and people are starting to gather in public spaces again. You may soon be welcoming employees back to the workplace on a part-time or full-time basis and confronting a host of new, unique challenges as a result.

Many workers joined new organizations during the pandemic without setting foot in an office. Their workplace interactions—from interviewing to onboarding to working day-to-day—have occurred exclusively in the virtual world with floating heads over video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex. At LifeSpeak, I and the many others who have joined since March 2020 have lived this very experience.

After all of this time, some of your new employees may feel anxious about visiting the physical workspace for the first time and meeting people in person. They may also have more questions about your organization’s culture than you expect—they have not had the chance to naturally absorb it through experiencing the formal and informal parts of office life. When new employees join teams that have worked together for a long time, that transition may be even more challenging.

Employers can ease these employees from remote work to in-person work by thinking carefully about creating an inviting work environment and anticipating potential issues before they arise. Before the pandemic, research by McKinsey indicated that  almost half of employees did not feel included in their workplace. The firm found inclusion linked strongly to engagement; the more included an employee felt, the more likely they were to feel excited by and committed to their organization.

Here are three key factors to keep in mind when introducing employees hired during the pandemic to the physical workspace. These will help you maintain and grow a strong workplace culture no matter how often your employees are in the office.

1. Communication is key

Virtual communication is hard. As LifeSpeak expert and HR manager at the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion Angele Lalonde says in her LifeSpeak blog How to Ensure a Successful Onboarding Experience for Remote Employees, up to 93% of communication is nonverbal. When we communicate remotely, we need to be more explicit in our comments, praise and instructions than we do in person. Your communications about returning to the office will likely occur virtually. To ensure that employees understand and feel included in the plan, providing clear and frequent communication should remain a top priority for your leaders.

For more tips on improving virtual communication, check out our podcast with presentation coaches Judith Asher and Frank O’Halloran.

2. Acknowledge that anxiety is normal in this

Taking a proactive approach can help you intercept issues related to anxiety before they manifest in the workplace. If your new employees are anxious about visiting the workplace and meeting their co-workers for the first time—let them know it’s ok and is to be expected. For some, that first-day walk-around to meet their co-workers will happen a year or more after their first actual day. Encourage them to be aware of their feelings throughout the process and create a safe space for them to reach out to you for help if they need it.  You can also make available resources on anxiety management—like LifeSpeak’s micro-learning videos and blogs—so they can work through their feelings confidentially and at their own pace.

As clinical psychologist, Dr. Marni Amsellem says in her LifeSpeak blog Better understanding anxiety and how to manage it, the best time to address anxiety is the moment we notice its onset. We can begin to combat anxiety by simply being present and finding a healthy outlet for our emotions, like taking a walk or writing in a journal.

3. Creating a positive, inclusive culture matters

Strong leadership is essential to transitioning from working from home to working in the office. Managers set the tone for behavior and expectations, and their guidance is imperative to getting new employees comfortable in the office. If your leaders are participating in office life in a positive way, they are prompting others to do so as well.

In her LifeSpeak micro-learning video 5 Ways Leadership Can Respond Effectively to Change, award-winning author and expert in change management Siobhan Calderbank says we must give people lots of information and make the vision for change compelling. We want people to pay attention and to be inspired to act, but we also want to keep them engaged. We can do this by speaking with people directly and regularly. If we’re good at giving updates but leave too much time in between them, people start to wonder what’s going on. Calderbank cautions that we need to give people time to accept change as well. Even if someone feels overwhelmed at first, leaders can manage the speed and scope of change to ease their transition.

Leaders can inspire employees to participate safely in activities at work—going out to lunch, resuming office events where possible and encouraging new employees to take part when they feel comfortable doing so. Prior to the pandemic, a study revealed that 40% of employees said they felt isolated at work; and with the stress of the last year and the volume of employees who have changed jobs, this number has likely increased. Research by HBR indicates that high workplace belonging leads to higher job performance, lower turnover risk, and fewer sick days. Leaders and long-term employees have an excellent opportunity to hit the reset button on their culture when they return to the office.

The LifeSpeak Way

At LifeSpeak, we’re dealing with this very challenge.

To help new team members feel connected to the LifeSpeak team, we’ve added corporate culture presentations to our onboarding process.  We have our quirks—as all organizations do—and we want to make sure new staff learn about those nuances and get comfortable with them. These have also helped existing employees become more aware of the challenges new team members experience. I am fortunate to be supported by a boss who recognizes the value of having an ongoing dialogue about the LifeSpeak way. Organizations like yours can consider your own culture presentations to familiarize remote employees with the unique aspects of your culture at your physical workspace ahead of their first trip into the office. Another good strategy is to share resources about mental wellness, adapting to change and creating positive culture with employees and team members. This approach will make it convenient and comfortable for employees to take ownership of their mental wellbeing outside of office hours.

Not sure where to start? LifeSpeak can help.

If you’re already a LifeSpeak client, your employees, and their family members can access your library of micro-learning videos and blog posts on a wide range of wellness topics with experts like these by logging into the LifeSpeak platform. New to LifeSpeak? No worries! Find out how our mental health and wellbeing platform can help you take care of your employees by booking a demo today.