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How To Assess Your Employees’ Anxiety About Returning To The Office

June 09, 2020 4:01 PM | Office IFCPP (Administrator)

Reposted from Forbes

Not every employee who’s been working from home feels anxiety about returning to the office. There are more than a few who see the chance to work in an office as a welcome respite from being trapped in the house with kids, spouses and more. 

But many employees are anxious about returning to the office. And if bosses don’t assess and address those anxieties, the resulting discomfort could show up in absenteeism, decreased productivity and even OSHA complaints.

How can a leader accurately assess their employees’ particular anxieties? By asking, preferably in a one-on-one conversation. I’m going to show you a series of questions that every leader should ask each employee individually. You can put these questions into a survey and they’ll work okay. But while a survey can suffice, it’s nowhere near as powerful as asking these questions in a one-on-one conversation.

When you engage directly with an individual employee, not only do you get valuable data that’s more nuanced and detailed than any survey, but you also demonstrate caring and empathy. And especially these days, demonstrating empathy will earn you a lot of loyalty from your employees.

Question #1: How do you feel about coming back to the office?

The purpose of this question is first to gauge your employee’s overall anxiety (or excitement) about coming back into the office. But the secondary purpose of the question is to demonstrate that you really do care about how they’re feeling.

You may well be able to pull out a policy binder and tell employees that “fear of contracting Covid-19 is generally not a legal reason to refuse coming to work.” However, you’re much better off if you can evidence some empathy and surface any concerns long before you get to the point of having to quote corporate policies. 

Question #2: What concerns you about coming back to the office?

The first question set the stage for you to now identify any particular concerns your employees might have about returning to the office. They might worry about social distancing or safety procedures in the company cafeteria. They could also be worried about a lack of safe child-care, family health concerns or even about taking public busses to get to the office.

The point is that your employees’ concerns will vary wildly from person to person. If you don’t ask, you won’t discover their particular stressors. And that means you won’t be able to help solve them.

Question #3: If needed, how effectively could you maintain your work from home situation for the next six months?

One of the key strategies in developing a back-to-the-office plan is identifying how to phase-in your employees. Simply having all employees rush back to the office is a recipe for trouble (imagine the social distancing problems with a crowd of employees all entering your lobby simultaneously). 

Knowing that you’ve got employees who can both perform their jobs remotely and handle the emotional rigors gives you lots of flexibility to create a phased plan. Not every employee can take another six months of working remotely. But if you’ve got a group of employees who can, you don’t have to make them rush back to the office, and you can methodically test and refine your plan.

Question #4: What are your biggest challenges working from home?

For any employees who are going to continue working from home, you want to make that experience as pleasant and productive as possible. And that means assessing and addressing any impediments they’re currently experiencing while working remotely.

There’s another reason for asking this question; it’s within the realm of possibility that there’s a second wave of the pandemic that requires a quick return to working remotely. If that were to happen, you certainly don’t want it to feel as chaotic as it did a few months ago. By assessing and addressing any remote-working challenges now, you’re essentially developing a contingency plan for future crises.

How To Respond To Your Employees

The most important lesson for leaders when your employees start answering your questions is to be empathic. Unfortunately, across the thousands of people who’ve taken the free online test “Do You Know How To Listen With Empathy?” about a third of respondents failed pretty badly. And only about 20% of people achieved perfect scores. So empathy is easier said than done.

But here’s one trick that will help you out. Researchers at UCLA conducted a study in which subjects were asked to write an essay describing a time a boss had treated them unfairly. Believing that another person was reading their essay (it was really just the researchers), one group of subjects was told that the reader said, “I tried to take their perspective, but I just couldn’t put myself in their shoes.” The other group was told the reader said, “I tried to take their perspective, and I could really put myself in their shoes.”

When people heard that the reader could really put themselves in their shoes, they liked that person 19% more. And they felt 78% more empathy towards them. So as a starting point, memorize the phrase “I can really put myself in your shoes” and use it liberally. And then, of course, take the empathic listening test and make sure that every leader in your company can pass it.

You undoubtedly have some employees feeling anxious about returning to the office. Ignoring those fears won’t dissipate them. But if you can empathically assess and address their concerns, you’ll not only have less fearful and more productive employees, you’ll earn lots of goodwill as well.

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