Seven ways to promote wellbeing while managing a transition back to the office
By Sandi Sadek, Partner and Chief People Officer, B Capital Group
In April, I did something that might once have seemed routine, but felt novel: I went to a conference—in-person. The Wellbeing at Work Summit, hosted in Singapore, was my first such event in two and a half years.
Wellbeing at Work is a worldwide organization that hosts multiple summits across the globe every year, where thousands of HR leaders learn together about how to make health and wellbeing a strategic priority at their organizations. This year, I was honored to be hosted as a speaker alongside peers at companies including Microsoft, Credit Suisse, and Gallup.
Unsurprisingly, returning to the office was a hot topic at the summit. Businesses across the globe are calling workers back to physical offices and shared deskspace, with mixed results. When companies first started requiring in-person work in 2021 it was perceived as a sudden change, and some employees responded by quitting. One recent survey found roughly two-thirds of respondents would consider looking for a new job if asked to return full-time.
At B Capital, we are mindful of this shift in work-patterns and have been phasing in a hybrid work setup, where we ask our employees to come into one of our global offices two days per week. Our approach has been slow and deliberate, and we’ve taken great care to engage our employees along the way. We recognize it’s still a journey, however here are seven tactics and approaches that have helped steer us towards success.
1. Move with intention
A large proportion of companies may want employees back in the office five days a week, but a return to this pre-COVID norm may not be feasible or advisable. Data tells us that most employees largely prefer hybrid options. Before deciding what setup was right for B Capital, we took time to reflect on what value we hoped to gain from resuming in-person work. This process started by gathering Partners to discuss what types of activities would benefit from in-person collaboration. From there we developed a plan to engage employees.
Engaging employees is critical, especially in our current employee-driven moment where the job market is hot and people have greater career choice. We initially used a survey to do this, which was helpful, but we found that holding virtual drop-ins provided even greater insights. These were informal, unstructured Zoom meetings where employees could ask members of the HR team questions about the transition from fully remote to hybrid. It was also a forum where they could share any thoughts and concerns, given the workplace they were returning to would be different to the one they left.
2. Develop clear guidelines
The more global your company, the more employees you have, and the more diverse their needs, the more complicated the process of developing guidelines will be. Nonetheless, you need clear and thoughtful guidelines that apply across your whole organization. While these guidelines can—and frankly must—be flexible based on individual circumstances, it’s important to have uniform and fair parameters as a baseline.
For us, that has meant sharing an expectation that employees of all levels come into the office up to two days a week. We don’t track attendance, and we leave it up to teams to decide what works best for them. But we have made the expectation very clear. We also require employees to inform managers before working from a different office than their regular home office. We’re a global team and appreciate our work sometimes involves travel. However safety is important and we have clear health and safety guidelines in place for each office where we operate.
3. Give lots of lead time
B Capital started talking to employees about coming back to the office in mid 2021, with a goal of convening in person by February 2022. The emergence of the Omicron variant set our goal of returning to the office back to May.
By starting the conversation about hybrid work early, we gave our employees time to mentally prepare, and also allowed for plenty of discussion that helped us to get ahead of any potential challenges. We knew how employees felt before we shared hybrid working expectations, allowing us to craft an approach that worked the best for the greatest proportion of our team. We also came in with a clear idea of where we needed to potentially make some exceptions.
If you’ve struggled to provide your employees with lead time and it has led to a backlash, you can still hit pause and revert to remote working while you work things out. Showing employees you are listening to their feedback will help to build trust. Even if your transition is going well, you need a process to monitor and heed employee concerns. Times are tricky and unpredictable. New variants and trends will pose new challenges and hurdles. Allocate time to learn, listen and adjust.
4. Offer transparency
This next component ties into lead time, but also goes further. You need to be transparent with your employees about how leadership is thinking about this transition. In addition to letting people know your proposed plans before you implement them, and in addition to engaging your employees’ feedback, you need to tell them the nature of considerations. For us we wanted to come together to collaborate, learn, share ideas and grow our cultural identity.
Tell employees why your company wants to resume in-office work. How does everyone benefit? Admit when you don’t know important information. For example, we don’t know when a new surge in cases may be, or what unique challenges returning to the office may hold. HR departments and business leaders are in the position of having to respond to public health trends, sometimes without a lot of outside authoritative guidance. Transparency about unknowns is better than creating a false sense of security.
5. Stay flexible
Returning to the office is a different experience for each and every employee. People at your company may have starkly different concerns and expectations about how to maintain their health. Some may have changed their lifestyles as part of adapting to working from home for so long. Perhaps they have moved. Perhaps they are caring for young children or elderly relatives who are vulnerable in new ways. Perhaps they are struggling with their mental health amid new stresses. Perhaps they are navigating the pandemic with high-risk health conditions.
Because individual situations can vary so widely, you must be flexible. Be ready to make exceptions to your guidelines around returning to the office. It’s really important to take things on a private and case-by-case basis. At B Capital, we have strived very hard to strike a balance between holding everyone accountable to the same expectation, while also being human and allowing flexibility based on each person’s circumstances. Fortunately, our hybrid approach supports this flexibility. By maintaining high-quality remote work experiences, we ensure work remains accessible for everyone.
6. Make it fun
In all the seriousness of the pandemic, the fun of seeing other people can really get lost. A big reason B Capital has shifted to a hybrid model that includes in-person work is that people actually enjoy people together—and we’re leaning into that. We firmly believe we are better together. We’ve been catering lunch, hosting happy hours, and offering fun classes. I recently participated in a B Capital-hosted outdoor hike. Throughout these years of social distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines, people have missed communal settings and social interactions. Ask your employees what activities would make them happy, and offer what you can.
7. Take care of yourself, too
Another thing that gets lost for HR leaders when you’re spending so much time thinking about how to keep a workforce happy is your own wellbeing. Like a therapist, you’re shouldering a lot of stress from a lot of people going through a lot of challenges. You can’t be very helpful if you get worn down. It’s a little like airline safety briefings, where the flight attendant tells you to put on your own mask before helping others.
As you check in with employees about their feelings, remember to also check in with yourself. Ask your company for support. Check-in to see if you’re adequately resourced. However, whatever your resources, schedule some time off. Set some personal boundaries and ensure you have time for exercise and relaxation. Create rituals for winding down from the workday. Do these things for yourself, but also as a way to model healthy work-life balance for the employees you’re supporting. You’re doing an admiral job – remember that! Wellbeing is at the core of all we do and the best way to drive positive change, and help create a fabulous work environment, is to look after your own wellbeing too.