As restrictions are slowly easing and the January blues are passing by, many employees are also being called back to the office. While the idea of a four-day working week is being piloted across the UK, others are welcoming the return of office collaboration.
With this transition to a ‘new normal’, the issue of employee mental health has come further into the spotlight, as we consider everything from day-to-day stressors, the social anxiety of being back in the office and the insecurities of remote workers who fear being left behind. Diagnosis of depression and anxiety has been on the rise post-pandemic, while many others have found their mental wellbeing shaken by this year’s ups and downs.
It’s a big part of what has created “The Great Resignation”, where employees are resigning in high numbers to escape exhaustion and burnout. Others identify this as a period of reassessment, where workers are rethinking the purpose, meaning and balance they want with their employment. However you choose to look at it, it’s never been more important for businesses to put the right support and resources in place.
And many have stepped up to do so. A week ahead of its employees’ return to the office at the end of August 2021, Nike gave its head office staff a week off to “destress” and recover from the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. LinkedIn and Hootsuite followed suit, while Microsoft gave employees five additional holiday days, and a pandemic bonus. At Zendesk, we introduced “Recharge Fridays” – one paid day off per month until the end of the year to give teams a chance to recharge in the way that works best for them.
While these are all positive steps, it’s the longer-term strategies that are likely to have the biggest impact in building a closer connection between employees and the values of their workplaces. Here are some initiatives we’ve found particularly helpful at Zendesk:
Make it part of the business strategy
Offer a flexible working model and shift the company mindset to one that focuses on accomplishment rather than input. It’s not about the check-in and check-out times, it’s about trusting employees to define balance themselves. As an example, Canva has announced that it won’t have strict requirements for the number of days spent in an office, but will instead empower teams to decide on the number of days employees are expected to attend work in person.
As employees transition to spending more time in the office, offer them initiatives that support their wellbeing and combat the stressors the pandemic has put many of us under. Every employee’s needs will be different, so managers need companies to support them with the training and empowerment to flex to those needs. Company policies can lead by example as well: These could include anything from caregiver leave and employee assistance programmes, to health and wellness training and “Zoom-free” days so that teams can take a break from being on camera.
Be together, apart
Cultivate an inclusive work culture with asynchronous comms and travel policies for gathering as a team.Whether people are working remotely or from the office, use digital-first principles, so that no one is left out. Platforms for seamless communication and sharing such as Slack, Teams and internal help centres are great for this.
As people transition back into the office, consider safe spaces for them to listen and share. These could include employee communities and empathy circles, such as The Village and Whole Self – two Zendesk’s employee-driven groups, one focusing on parents and caregivers, and the other on employees’ mental wellbeing. Or similar emotional support services, such as Elastic’s Ginger, an on-demand mental health support application.
The role of the office
The days of going into the office to prove that you’re putting in the hours are long gone. Where work can happen from anywhere, the office has its own place as a hub for collaboration. Encourage teams to use days in the office as an opportunity for meeting together, brainstorming and team building, rather than desk work. The layout can reflect this – increasing collaboration and discussion spaces, rather than rows of desks.
At the same time, we want to be sure no one is left behind – so think about how to include remote workers who can’t be there in person. If just one person is joining via Zoom, consider having everyone dial-in with their own tile to be more inclusive.
Whether working remotely or at home, make employees comfortable with the right ergonomic workspace. This might involve compensation for remote-work office set-ups – which companies like Twitter, Shopify and Zendesk have all put in place – internet reimbursement or initiatives like 90 days’ Work From (almost) Anywhere.
Fear of the unknown is a major driver of anxiety
As the pandemic ebbs and flows around the world, give employees as much information as possible on the inevitable rolling changes to working practices. For many, overcommunication is often better than under communication. Put yourself in the shoes of a concerned employee, and lead with empathy. Even if you don’t have all the answers, communicating the known unknowns means less room for speculation that can lead to anxiety and uncertainty.
A report by McKinsey on post pandemic working arrangements, found that organisations with clearer communication are seeing benefits to employee wellbeing and productivity. Conversely, at organisations where communication is vague or nonexistent about the future of post pandemic work, nearly half of employees say it’s causing them concern or anxiety. Communication is a two-way street – once you’ve told your employees what they need to know, listen to make sure you’re addressing anything else they raise to help nip nervous thoughts in the bud.
Pool your resources
Put in place a central resource where staff can share questions and answers – like an internal help centre. This will help to reassure them that they aren’t alone and that their queries are more common than they might think. It also has the added benefit of empowering them to quickly find answers themselves as and when they need them.
Combat an ‘always on’ culture to maintain a healthy work/life balance
During the depths of lockdown, it was common – and often rather comical – to be on a video call and see your colleague’s cat walk in front of the screen, a young child pop their head into the room, or a delivery driver incessantly ringing the doorbell. Working from home, of course, has its inevitable distractions. However, for some it has also meant caring for an unwell family member or self-isolating.
Rather than feeling guilty or embarrassed, encourage employees to be upfront with their colleagues when something outside of work needs their attention during normal working hours – and show them that it’s OK to wear multiple hats. To try to safeguard people’s right to disconnect: France has even made it law that you cannot email an employee after typical working hours. But we shouldn’t have to wait for the law to tell us that balance is important.
Unfortunately, the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t quite done with us yet – even if the return to offices may feel like we’re getting closer to ‘normal’. As employees feel their way through this next phase reopening, businesses must keep adapting to listen to employees and support mental wellbeing, as well as their passion and connection to work. Let’s not forget the learnings and challenges of the past year; but use it as a way to keep advancing the discussion of wellbeing this back to office season and beyond.
By Peter Lorant, COO, EMEA at Zendesk