Managing The Return To Working Life

As vaccines roll out across the globe, more and more offices will be opening up or moving further towards full capacity.

As a manager how do you help people manage any anxiety about returning to the office environment or, for many, back to work after furlough? Should you give them a nudge in the direction you seek? What if they have concerns that working from home might negatively affect their career prospects? What if they have genuine health concerns?

This is uncharted territory for all of us, but especially for business managers. For some people the return to routine and work and meeting colleagues again will be healing, but others just will not be ready.

Management is all about looking after employee concerns whilst ensuring that the goals of the business are being met. Keeping key people engaged and on board will be crucial to future success and there are a lot of delicate feelings out there.

There are a number of things that the good manager will do to ensure a smooth transition to the work approach that is required to achieve success.

Find Out How People are Feeling:

You need to know how your team feel as individuals. Don’t assume that your employees will tell you if they’re feeling anxious about a return to work. People will often never admit this because they are fearful of looking weak or not living up to expectations. You therefore need to create a ‘safe’ environment for people to speak up. Employee surveys can help if you have a big team – but do make them anonymous to get honest answers.

With a small team give them the safe environment they seek by positioning your meeting as that – your purpose is to help your people overcome their concerns and this should be stated at the outset of any meeting. You can only help if they are 100% honest with you and this ‘safe scenario’ needs to be explained.

Use the insights you glean from meetings/ surveys to address people’s concerns. For example, if several people mentioned health considerations in your surveys, you should make sure that the team knows precisely what precautions the company is taking to keep staff safe, or if you don’t have that authority, you can lobby senior leaders to put more preparations in place.

Let’s say there are employees who prefer working from home because they find they’re able to focus better without interruptions. Help them to learn how to minimise distractions no matter where they’re working.

The key point is to ensure that they feel that they are being listened to. If you ask people to share what they’re nervous about, respond directly to whatever they raise so they know you’re listening and taking their preferences and anxieties seriously.

Allow for Different Opinions About Returning:

When people share their concerns – either openly or anonymously — make sure you allow for people to have mixed and complex feelings. It’s tempting to be positive about the upcoming changes as a way to assuage worries, but you risk making people feel dismissed, or you might inadvertently pressure them to hide their negative feelings.

All of us have positive and negative emotions — these occur usually at the same time. This can cause managers to feel pressurised to respond to these emotions, and even help people resolve them. They might encourage people who are struggling to ‘’see the bright side,” for example. Or they may inadvertently dismiss negative emotions as complaints. The best path is for managers to lean into the emotional splits, making it okay to have mixed feelings. By facilitating ambivalence managers can create a culture where people will adapt and change more easily. This may be especially true of the anxieties your team members feel about coming back. It’s unlikely each person feels absolutely thrilled or completely despondent so encourage people to express both positive and negative emotions and don’t force a tidy resolution to those feelings.

Be Prepared to Offer Flexibility, if Possible:

If at all possible, at least at the beginning of your ‘reopening’, give people some options about when and how often they come in. The message should be one of flexibility, flexibility, flexibility – particularly given what everyone has been through over the past year plus. There have been many sources of pain, not just from the pandemic but from other issues. It has been a tough time for people.

All that said, being flexible isn’t just about being kind and compassionate – but by being flexible businesses can maintain productivity and crucially retain key people. It is important that businesses can do the latter and the connection with people right now is probably as fragile as it ever has been. Therefore, if management is too forceful, personal contracts and engagement with your people could plummet.” The reality of the world right now is illustrated by a recent survey that found that 58% of people say they would “absolutely look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position.” Of more than 2,000 respondents, 65% wanted to work remotely full-time, post-pandemic, and another 33% prefer a hybrid work arrangement. Now, we don’t suggest that the ‘tail wags the dog’ but managers must approach the situation with sensitivity and rather than mandating x, y or z causing friction, make sure that they…………………………

Explain the “Why”:

When people must do something that they feel anxious about, it can help to know there’s a good reason behind it. Senior leaders in any business must clearly articulate why it’s important for people to come back to the office. It is important to communicate the vision from the company perspective so employees see that it is reasonable and can get fully on board. If you can’t find a ‘why’? – think again about your strategy. The reality is that if your team don’t buy in, it will feel like coercion.

The value proposition for going back in must be explained – what is in it for the employees? – will it strengthen their relationships with their co-workers? – will it lessen work-life conflicts if there are clearer boundaries? Rather than them seeing the return as a loss the skill in management is to emphasise the gains.

It is also important that the team knows this wasn’t a decision made ‘on the hoof’. They need to see a competent and well-thought-out plan which has also taken into consideration their needs. Make the connection between the expectations for the return and the concerns they have shared with you. For example saying something like, “we know that some of you have reservations and these makes sense to us too so, to address these we have………..’

Once again, we emphasise that people want to feel heard and considered.

Consider Experiments and Pilot Programmes:

A transition back to five days a week at the office may feel sudden, like turning on a light switch. To avoid overwhelming employees, and to help them ease into a different way of working, consider running pilot programmes or letting people experiment individually. Taking baby steps is a good idea here, particularly for those who have concerns. A good message is ‘’we are going to try this out and see what we learn.”

Then make sure you ask for feedback along the way so you can understand what’s working and what isn’t.

This approach can be used on an individual basis too for an employee who is particularly anxious. You might suggest they try going in one day a week for several weeks and then you can check in to see how it went and troubleshoot issues they still have. Whenever possible, give the accommodations people need to do their best work. That is the ultimate goal, after all.

Don’t Make Promises you Can’t Keep:

In navigating all of this, you may be tempted to tell hesitant employees that the office is completely safe or reassure those who aren’t ready to come back in that their careers will not be affected. You must be careful not to make promises you can’t keep. As one example we doubt whether you can say with 100% certainty that coming to the office has “zero risk” from a health perspective for every employee.

As a second example you must be realistic about the career impacts for those who continue to work from home, especially if the majority of staff are back at work. It is much better to be honest about the potential drawbacks, especially given your company’s unique culture. “Will employees have fewer opportunities to network? Will their work be less visible? These things are very possible outcomes – you shouldn’t pretend otherwise – you cannot always guarantee that it will not have an impact on their career.

Similarly, don’t tell people on your team that you’ll be able to make accommodations unless you are absolutely sure that you can. Circumstances are likely to evolve and while it may be okay for someone to choose to work from home right now, that may change later. In an attempt to retain key staff, you may be tempted to guarantee that they can work from home as long as they want, but that simply may not be true. So be realistic and straightforward with your team.

Be Compassionate:

No matter what messages you have to deliver, what accommodations you can and can’t make, and what policies you may have to enforce, do it all with compassion. It’s often an antidote to anxiety.

Continue to ask your people about how they’re doing and what else they have going on besides work. Talk about what you are going through to make it okay for them to do the same. Keep an eye out for signs of burnout and stress, especially as their work schedule changes.

Most good managers have been doing this since the pandemic started and are likely exhausted from the additional responsibility of caring for their team members’ wellbeing during such an intense time. It is important that management take care of themselves — not just their team members.

Mid and post pandemic it is certainly more acceptable than before to talk about mental health at work. Just because many of us are going back to the office shouldn’t mean that the conversation and compassion around this topic should stop. As a manager, it’s important to remember that you may not know or appreciate the full picture of what your employees have been through or continue to go through. As someone recently told us, “No vaccine is going to take away the grief and trauma that we’ve all experienced.” Keep that in mind when helping your employees make their way back into the office.

Action Points


  • Ask — anonymously, if necessary — how people are feeling about returning to the office so you can respond directly to their concerns.
  • Allow people to experiment with different ways of working so the shift to in-person or hybrid work doesn’t feel sudden and dramatic.
  • Continue to be compassionate — to your team members, but also to yourself.


  • Assume people will tell you they’re feeling anxious.
  • Neglect to make clear why in-person or hybrid work is beneficial to employees (not just to the company)
  • Make promises you cannot keep, such as assuring people their careers will not be impacted by working from home or that they can do so indefinitely.

If you need some advice and experienced support and help in smoothing the transition back to work for your people get in touch with us at, or call on 0116 232 5231


The Tinderbox Team