As businesses start to reopen their offices, many are planning for a hybrid model that will see more employees working remotely all or part of the time. But this return to a semblance of normal working life could be more disruptive than the initial pivot to all-remote work in 2020.

Several factors make the return to work more challenging. For employees, it will be a staggered, disjointed process marked by uncertainty. Workers will return to unfamiliar surroundings, with masks, plexiglass screens and hand sanitiser, wondering if their coworkers are vaccinated and how they should greet them.

This is anything but a unifying experience, and it comes at a time when many people are mentally and physically drained after more than a year of lockdown. A study by the University of Chicago showed that employees worked 30% more than normal during the shutdown, and Microsoft found that work-related messages sent between 6 p.m. and midnight jumped 52%. No wonder people are burned out.

The result is a fatigued and fragile workforce that in many cases will collide with a senior leadership team that is keen to get back on track and resume a trajectory of rapid growth. This is a recipe for disaster, and it’s critical that senior leaders, managers, and HR teams build a plan to address the vulnerabilities in their teams.

So, here are five steps that senior leaders, managers, and HR teams should carefully consider before returning to the hybrid office.

SET REALISTIC PERFORMANCE GOALS

With the exhaustion and uncertainty, people are feeling, if you ask your teams to operate at 110% out of the gate, you will be let down and they will feel they have failed. Setting realistic goals can take many forms. It may be reducing sales quotas or production targets, but it should be meaningful and expressed clearly from the outset.

LEAD WITH COMPASSION, NOT EMPATHY

People need compassion. Empathy is saying, “I know you’ve had a tough year.” Compassion is saying, “I know you’ve had a tough year—and here’s how we’re going to help.” Give people the space to get their heads back in the game. Pay attention to their needs.

CLOSE THE EMOTIONAL DISTANCE

The return to work is about more than physical distance and ensuring that desks are properly spaced apart. It’s about finding ways to close the emotional distance between your employees. Managers should organize moments of small-scale, concentrated human connection—virtual water coolers, game nights, kicking off a meeting by asking about a teammate’s weekend. These personal moments help teams stay connected, combat burnout, and work together effectively when they’ve been physically apart for a long period.

SET A DATE TO REASSESS YOUR PLANS 

Many companies will need to change plans and revise protocols after welcoming employees back to the office. When you make unexpected changes, people think the plan’s not working and get anxious. A better strategy is to say, “We will try this system for two months and then see what needs to be changed.” When people expect change, they handle it far better because they can see it coming.

ONE SIZE WILL NOT NOT FIT ALL

A one-size-fits-all “hybrid plan” is not going to fix the exhaustion or lead to a sustainable work environment. Consider what hybrid work means at the team and the individual levels. The right approach for your sales team may be very different from the right approach for your engineering team. Look for tools and approaches that enable you to offer the kind of personalized support to managers and teams that enable them to figure out the best ways of working together.

Getting back to a predictable pattern of work will be a relief for many employees, but they need your compassion and support to do their best work. The companies that succeed will be those where leaders prioritize their employees’ well-being by addressing the exhaustion of the past 12 months, and who recognize this as a “printable moment” in which to reassert their company’s values and the purpose of their work. This will not only make the return to work a smooth one but also strengthen your business in the long run.

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