How to gauge your employee anxiety about returning to work

Jul 21, 2020 | Coach's Questions

Returning to work after months at home is unsettling for almost everyone, but how do you evaluate employee anxiety?

It’s important for us, as leaders, to figure out who is okay (yay, I get to leave the kids home with their Dad!), who is a bit apprehensive (are we going to be properly socially distanced and wear masks at all times?) and who is really struggling (I can’t trust the HVAC in here isn’t going to spread contamination and my partner is fighting cancer and immuno-compromised and I still don’t know what we’re going to do with the kids).

Why does it matter? Serious employee anxiety, left unchecked, can result in:

  • Increased sick time
  • Decreased productivity
  • Decreased employee morale
  • Poor performance

Employees who are really worried have every right to reach out to Human Resources, Occupational Health & Safety, an Employee Wellness Program or their union leaders. But, this is one of those times where we, as leaders, can get ahead of the curve by assessing employee anxiety before it escalates and fears ripple through the office. 

Caught in the middle?

I did a survey with people last week about leadership challenges to help me prepare for an upcoming Padraig project and I got a LOT of responses. Shockingly so. (Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us!)  

Many readers and clients who answered the survey questions are managers who report to a CEO or director. The common theme is that these leaders feel caught between what their own leaders want and what their staff want.

This is one reply that summarized this situation very well:

I find it very difficult to support the need to return to the office with my team who is very nervous about COVID and being in the workplace with large numbers of people, especially when I do not personally see the value in returning and am extremely anxious myself.

It is difficult to rationalize this to my team when our leaders cannot rationalize this for me. Productivity has increased during the work from home period, as have physical and mental wellness. Returning to the workplace seems like more risk than its worth. How do I support this move?

This is a situation where having individual conversations with your team members will give you concrete information to bring to your boss(es) for consideration. They may not realize what kinds of things people are worried about. Having specific examples to share may help you gain ground with your boss and figure out solutions that work for everyone. It may also help you to share your own apprehension a little more candidly as you advocate for your team members. This is an important time to be willing to speak truth to power telling your boss what you’re hearing and what concerns you and sharing it both diplomatically and empathetically.

Make time to have conversations

Don’t panic if you skipped psychology courses during your university years. You’re going to assess how people are feeling by talking with them, one-to-one. Do not cheat and send out emails, ask at a group meeting or issue an online survey.

It’s important to check-in with everyone on your team individually because you can see their facial expressions and observe their body language, which will give you clues to how candidly they’re sharing how they really feel.

And, of course, they will hopefully feel more comfortable sharing, if you are talking one-to-one. If you’re assessing how they’re doing, before you move back to the office (good for you!) you can do this by video call.

Talking with your direct reports and team members individually gives you the opportunity to show empathy and vulnerability by acknowledging to them that you, too, had some reservations about calling everyone back into work when there is still so much uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees respond favorably when they feel leaders genuinely care about them, understand them and are interested in what they think.

It will also be important to let them know the conversation is confidential.  Let them know you may share topics without names (if that’s the case) with your boss or your leadership peers, or whomever.  But be clear that their personal concern will remain between the two of you unless they share it with others.

Listen with intent

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you know that the coaches on my team and I quote management guru Stephen R. Covey when we talk about listening: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

This is a time that you want to ask questions and then listen with the intent to understand. This is not your time to fill in the blanks or suggest to people what you think (so that they mirror your words) and it’s not a time to share all the anxiety and uncertainty in your own life. The classic, “oh, I know how you’re feeling! My life is like this and my home situation is like that and…and…and…” has no place in this conversation.  

Gauge employee anxiety

When you meet with folks, here are some of the types of questions you can ask to help you gauge employee anxiety:

  • How did you find working from home? 
  • How are you feeling about coming back into the office?
  • Depending how they respond (I’m fine, I’m scared, I’m worried, I’m frustrated) you can use that to dive deeper. Such as: I’m glad to hear you’re fine what are you most looking forward to? And, what could we do to make it feel even better? Or, tell me a bit more about that what are you most afraid of? Worried about? Frustrated by?

These open-ended questions will help you to glean information to figure out what is weighing on the minds of your team members, particularly if you allow silence into the conversations instead of filling in the gaps with your own thoughts (which is tempting — but wait and hear what people have to say). 

Some answers might be predictable things like worrying about social distancing, flexibility if someone at home gets sick or what happens if there is a second wave. But some of the other answers you get might be surprising.

You might uncover concerns that you would never have guessed otherwise. Maybe Jane in accounting is sleepless worrying that she’s going to have children home learning again in the fall and doesn’t know how to ask if she can keep working remotely. Perhaps Ivan in marketing takes the bus to work and is concerned he could get COVID because he commutes.

Don’t be afraid to take notes, which shows that what your team members are worrying about really does matter to you. (If you do take notes, however, you’ll want to again discuss confidentiality with them.) Keeping notes also ensures you can do some research and follow up with ways to address and allay the specific fears of the people who work for you.

Obviously, if you know who might need to work from home that will help you plan how to phase people for the return to work — and develop contingency planning for any future outbreaks (these folks love working from home, these folks would rather work in the office). And if you know what challenges people had working from home, then you’ll also know how to make working from home better than just okay — and then you can get everyone prepared and ready for a much smoother transition should it arise this time. 

After you have assessed concerns, go back to individuals to talk about how you can address them. This will help to mitigate employee anxiety, increase loyalty and earn plenty of goodwill. 

Coach’s Questions:

What’s your sense of how people on your team feel about returning to work? What can you do differently or better with one-to-one conversations to gauge employee anxiety? How will answers inform your planning?