Three Steps to Fight the Back-to-work Blues


Employees have become accustomed to working from home due to the global pandemic. Liz Pavese, Ph.D., director of behavioral science & solutions at CoachHub, says for executives planning to bring employees back to the office, a people-centric, technology-enabled change management strategy is needed to ensure a smooth transition.

The workforce has been no stranger to volatility over the past few years. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, troubling world events, and ongoing economic uncertainty have heightened the need to adapt to change. For many employees, there’s yet another type of workplace anxiety on the horizon: in-person work. Half of the companiesOpens a new window already require – or are planning to mandate – full-time, in-person work. 

While executives have various reasons for back-to-work initiatives, they must acknowledge that their motivation likely contradicts their employees’ preferences. One survey found that only 3%Opens a new window of white-collar employees want to work in-person five days per week.

For leaders planning to bring workforces back to the office, reassuring and motivating a hesitant workforce requires a people-centered and tech-enabled change management strategy.

What Exactly Is Change Management?

As the old saying goes, the only constant changes. But the frequency of change doesn’t mean organizations should be passive about its imminence. 

Change management helps organizations prepare employees for impending shifts or developments and supports them through the transition. If thoughtfully planned, executed, and reinforced, change management strategies guide the people side of change, resulting in a smoother transition process and more successful outcomes. The idea behind the framework is that humans naturally gravitate to certainty and fear the unknown – whether the change is a strategy shift, a transition to new technology, or, of course, a back-to-work initiative.

While there are various methodologies, three core steps characterize most change management strategies: preparation, implementation, and reinforcement. Throughout these steps, organizational leaders must put their people at the forefront. 

Additionally, technology should be every leader’s and employee’s friend when undergoing workplace transformation, including in-office work initiatives. 

Three Steps for Smarter Change Management

With numerous moving parts and change management challenges, leaders should lean on digital tools like project management platforms, communication apps, and digital coaching platforms.

Let’s dig deeper

Step 1: Preparation

Preparing for change should be the most labor-intensive part of any change management process. This step is not employee-facing; it determines how you will handle the transformation as it relates to your people. During this step, you’ll gather organizational stakeholders – including employees – to lay the foundation for your plan.

Kick-off planning by gathering a group of executive stakeholders and creating a clear vision for the change. What is the group’s desired outcome for returning employees to the office? In other words, what will a regular day in the office look like? Will people come back every day or just some days? 

Critically, executives must also settle on the why behind the in-person work requirement. This is why the statement will likely be what employees zero in on and could help solidify employee buy-in. Back up your reasoning with research, case studies, and employee feedback. 

Use your vision and reasoning to create a clear and consistent message for the entire organization. Your communication should define the issue, frame the problem within its larger context and educate employees about why the change is necessary for success. This message should shape every communication — written and verbal, digital and in-person. 

After determining the messaging, set fair and consistent protocols and policies for in-person work. These protocols should consider employees’ post-pandemic safety and comfort in the wake of extensive workplace changes over the last few years. Your digital HR platform should have these revisited expectations in writing and easily accessible as soon as your change management strategy rolls out.

Next, create a realistic milestone schedule, addressing expectations like when employees  come into the office and if they have temporary work-from-home or hybrid options. Consider that a comprehensive strategy takes substantial time to roll out and that employees tend to respond favorably to flexibility, especially at the outset of a significant change. After all, many employees will need to figure out personal details like child or elderly care, commutes, and travel budgets after a long stint at home. Like the new policies, the schedule should be shared digitally as executives announce the plan. 

As a group, leaning particularly on the HR department, anticipate potential roadblocks. And keep in mind that considerable change often follows a mourning curve: 

  1. Shock and denial
  2. Anger and depression 
  3. Acceptance and integration 

Step 2: Implementation

Announcing your change management plan is the first stage of implementation. Host all-employee sessions, following up with links to details like the benchmarks schedule, new protocols, and policies documents. 

Keep in constant communication with your staff by sending frequent, organization-wide updates, especially as milestones approach. Enable two-way communication by sharing anonymous surveys or collecting feedback from one-on-one meetings. When you receive concerns, address them openly, honestly, and empathetically. Transparency will help quash rumors and misunderstandings, while empathy will show employees you care about them and understand that organizational change can create a sense of insecurity.

Part of your communication efforts should solicit feedback about the knowledge, skills, and tools employees need to navigate change. Almost half (47%Opens a new window ) of organizations plan to reskill and upskill people to support their business transformation. 

One-on-one coaches can be particularly beneficial to workforces coping with transformation. After all, unique individuals dealing with specific personal and professional challenges are behind the decision to bring workers back to the office. Because coaching provides a long-term, individualized approach to skills like resilience, stress management, and agility, employees can more seamlessly weather disruption and maximize their capabilities. As part of the digital tool investment, you can consider coaching apps that provide coaches for the entire workforce. 

Step 3: Reinforcement

To ensure the long-term success of in-office requirements, stakeholders must set up sustained support for the change. This support should include recognition of desired behaviors and coaching around undesired behaviors. 

Avoid sticking to policies that don’t work out as your team had planned. Instead, continually test and optimize your strategy by listening to your employees. Metrics will help too. Track telling data like engagement, absentee, and productivity metrics. And, if there’s good news to share about this data, share it!

Human nature dictates that we fear the unfamiliar. So, don’t surprise your employees with your back-to-work plans. Instead, plan, execute, and reinforce a comprehensive change management strategy that leverages technology and empathy while putting your people front and center. Be flexible in the process.

Can back-to-work blues and job unhappiness be alleviated? Share your thoughts with us on FacebookOpens a new window , TwitterOpens a new window , and LinkedInOpens a new window . We’d love to hear from you!

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