Two women elbow bump in greeting. Their faces are not clearly seen, but they are both wearing face coverings, work attire and watches.

Progress, not compromise: Returning to work in the ‘new normal’

On a scale of one to ten, where one is fine and ten is incredibly anxious, how do you feel about returning to the office? As many of us take the first tentative steps in returning to our desks after months of working from home, answers will invariably span the entire spectrum, depending on a multitude of both personal and professional factors. For organisations, this is a time that requires both a gentle touch and world of practical considerations.  

With personal circumstances, professional preferences and month upon month of daily updates from the media, everyone has had to hastily unlearn their accepted version of the world – and now it feels like there’s an expectation to re-adapt, semi-pivot and return to ‘somewhere in the middle’. Perhaps this isn’t quite the ‘new normal’ we had in mind. Debbie Brown, HR Director Canon UK & Ireland understands this feeling well. “Some people are desperate to get back in, get some face-to-face time and have a different working environment. And others have huge anxiety. Our role is to really help support people through that.” There’s not one right way to approach this critical moment in what has already been an incredibly difficult year, but there are plenty of things that organisations can do to make teams feel more confident, comfortable and valued.

Paint a picture of the future

Offices operate differently now and the measures that have been taken to make your office Covid secure must be made crystal clear in regular communications, that are updated quickly in order to reflect any new additions or changes. While this may sound obvious and practical, knowing what to expect plays a huge part in addressing any feelings of discomfort and fear. People need to be able to visualise how they might fit into this new picture and in order to do this, neuroscience tells us that repetition is the key to helping create strategies for coping. This shouldn’t just be one way, however. It’s important to keep an open dialogue in order to understand – and act upon – what makes people feel uncomfortable or reassured.

Two women sit opposite each other at a white table, working on their laptops. They are wearing smart, casual clothing and blue disposable, non-surgical face coverings.
Returning to work will look different for everyone, but there are plenty of protocols that organisations can put in place to smooth the transition.

Continue to talk about mental health

Mental health and wellbeing have been high on the agenda for everyone over the last months, but as we emerge from our homes our attention to the mental health of our teams should actually be more of a priority than ever. Accessing resources has never been easier, but it’s important to integrate an openness to talk about issues surrounding mental health into accepted company culture. “When organisations lay the groundwork for these conversations, as we have, it becomes easier for people to talk about their mental health,” says Nicola Johnson, a Learning and Development Specialist at Canon UK & Ireland. “When this is established, it’s important to continue and keep building on the positive work. To ensure that employees feel safe to say how they are feeling. And that colleagues and people around them can support them.”

Think hybrid

Being forced to make the unnatural shift to entirely remote working has led to one of the more fascinating outcomes of the pandemic: that productivity is not just confined to the office. Teams all over the world are achieving great things while apart and now we have reached a time where it’s possible to mix things up a bit and experiment with what works and what doesn’t. Debbie explains: “We know there are benefits of face to face time with other people in terms of collaboration, and these times are essential. But we also see that a hybrid way of working can be balanced with some time working at home.” Again, it’s all to do with the dynamics of your teams and overall organisation, as well as the personal needs of employees while the pandemic continues to affect the way we look after children and care for loved ones.

Adopt a mindset of progress, not compromise

Nicola hits the nail on the head: “We didn’t see this coming it came out of the blue, yet we managed to adapt quickly, I think we can learn from that, and be able to do it again if we need to.” There is a temptation to approach the current situation as temporary, when it’s actually more valuable to consider new approaches to working as simply another step towards the future. The acceleration of the digital workspace, worldwide collaboration, work/life balance are all subjects that, pre-pandemic, were often discussed as primary concerns of the office of the future. It seems that this ‘future’ is now.

We have reached a time where it’s possible to mix things up a bit and experiment with what works and what doesn’t

Role models cast a wide shadow

We look to our leaders to show us the way. So, it’s critically important they conduct themselves in a way that sets the tone for everyone – if they are unhappy to return to the office, then their teams certainly won’t feel confident either. Leadership and management need just as much, if not more, support in terms of resources and information. They will not only be on the coalface of presenting the new hybrid future, but more than ever will need to have an ‘open door’ for difficult conversations and foster a culture of openness and communication in order to do so.

Individuals make the team

No two people have experienced lockdown in the same way. This is the bottom line when it comes to welcoming people back to the office and it is our sensitivity to this knowledge that will define the success of the next phase. After all, our fundamental differences as humans are the things that dictate our suitability for our roles, but also our approaches to risk, change, fear and the extent of our comfort zones. When looking at teams as a whole, there are naturally going to be some members who find the transition easy and others who are anxious and reluctant. You may have a team where some members have been on furlough, but not others. These are all very human circumstances that require careful personal management in the early stages. Debbie describes these kinds of scenarios as “moments that matter” and strongly advises a focus on support and recognition. “Everyone has different experiences, and one size doesn’t fit all. We have to respect and understand the different levels of support that employees are going to need.”

Both Debbie and Nicola have seen first-hand the incredible resilience of teams as they met the myriad personal and professional challenges that Covid-19 has presented and feel confident that the next stage will meet with the same levels of kindness and cooperation. “I’ve seen in our organisation how adaptable and supportive people have been to each other,” says Debbie. “And open to things not always being perfect. But together we can find a way through it, and that makes us stronger both as individuals and as an organisation.”

For more fresh thinking, great ideas and new ways to improve the way we live and work, head to the Canon ILLUMINATE Connects podcast.

Written by Adam Poole, Director of the Managing Director's Office, Canon UK & Ireland

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