As this year kicks off, many corporations are planning and strategizing about what it looks like for employees to come back to the office either part time or full time. There is a sense of excitement around moving forward even amidst the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic. While this can be exciting and invigorating for leaders– having employees around again, socializing, collaborating in person– we can’t forget that the events of the past year and a half have had a lasting impact on each employee and the way they work.

Employee’s personal and professional lives have involuntarily fused as they’ve learned to work from home, juggling their personal and family needs in between Zoom meetings. While this started as a challenge for many, people have adapted. Employees have settled into a new way of work, a more flexible one, and coming back to the office can feel threatening to that flexibility. Between financial stress (like rent and mortgages unpausing), childcare concerns, health concerns, and more, many people are emotionally tapped.

To help our employees come back to the office, even if just part-time, successfully and productively, it’s important to lead with empathy – to rethink the way we do things to include the human factor.

5 tips to help you lead with empathy as employees return to the office

Start with self-reflection:

The key to leading with empathy is putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Starting with self-reflection can help you understand how your employees may be feeling as the new year and new way of working approaches. This requires slowing down and being honest with yourself. What things did you endure over the past year and a half and how did they interact with your work? How have they affected your mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing?

Consider how your personal life has merged with your work life, and then take a look at your team and consider the same aspect on their behalf. Gaining empathy and understanding for others personal experiences will give you a human-centric perspective and help you lead better as you step into the new year.

Acknowledge Grief:

The pandemic and social unrest that ensued in 2020 has caused us all to come face to face with grief in ways we haven’t had to in a long time, if ever. There is a sense of broader grief for the nation and for the world, and there is personal grief as people have lost loved ones, jobs, financial security, and more. This emotional weight doesn’t disappear when we return to the office. Grief is a new risk to our employees’ wellbeing that can’t go without being addressed in the workplace.

First, it should be acknowledged. Let your teams know that it’s not getting swept under the rug, and make sure any mental health resources your HR team provides are readily available. Second, leaders should model holding the tension of grief well, while still looking forward to a better future. Pressing forward is necessary, but it shouldn’t feel like a bulldozer to those who are still dealing with grief.

Over Communicate:

There is still a lot of uncertainty in the world today, and when it comes to their jobs, employees crave clarity and direction. During the transition of stepping back into the office this year, communication will be key.

Sending weekly updates, whole company announcements, and keeping an open flow of communication will help your direct reports transition and feel a greater sense of trust and security. It’s also important to clarify goals and expectations regularly to decrease stress and create a stronger sense of direction and purpose through the change.

Consider Personal Responsibilities:

Most people’s personal responsibilities look a lot different now than they did before remote work. They have had to figure out childcare, setting up a home office, juggling family responsibilities, appointments, etc. To help soften the blow of managing these responsibilities when returning to the office, consider how you can accommodate or help support them through these things in an effort to make business more human.

Giving employees autonomy and still allowing them flexibility can help make the adjustment easier for employees and increase their sense of psychological safety. Ask which days and hours work best for them to be in the office and accommodate if possible. If you don’t have a commuter program or a childcare allowance, consider how these types of programs can help your employees feel supported as they navigate in-office work.

Be patient with socialization:

After being home alone for so long, socializing with coworkers can be exhausting, especially for introverts. People will need time to readjust to in-person relationship building. There may be a sense of awkwardness or hesitation in getting back to a culture where employees share personal details about their lives.

As much as you may have tried to simulate this over video conferencing, the actuality of hallway conversations and water cooler talk could feel daunting to those who have been isolated for a long period of time. Be patient, and don’t expect everyone to get there all at once. Offer opportunities for team bonding and getting reacquainted with each other but, understand that this may take longer than you think.

Leading with empathy, as you step into 2022, will help sustain your employees and avoid them feeling burnt out from the stress of reentering the workplace. It’s important to adjust, to be flexible, to integrate feedback, and to hold your excitement about progression with the tension of how hard the past year or so has been. If you can start by acknowledging the human element, then your vision for the future along with your new-year strategies will be embraced and more readily adopted.