Virtual Happy Hours Can Help Prepare Remote Employees to Return, Psychologist Says

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL ( – Employees returning to the workplace after months of working remotely have fears — lots of them. They fear contracting COVID-19, either for themselves or bringing it home to their families; they fear they’ll be overburdened with work due to the layoffs of others; they fear losing their jobs; and they fear they won’t be able to manage their work/life balance, since many things have changed of late.

“These are all really normal fears and there are things we as leaders can do to help with,” said Tyler Arvig, associate Medical Director for R3 Continuum, during a recent webinar. “The reality is every one of us is dealing with some level of anxiety, fear, sadness, apprehension – what have you. Your job as a manager is not just to see ‘if Sally’s getting her work done,’ but [to understand] all other elements of the situation.”

Without addressing the underlying concerns of workers as the economy opens up again, employers risk potentially significant losses in productivity. Developing a solid plan and presenting it to employees in a clear and concise manner is key to a smooth transition.

Among the main concerns of employees is whether their employers have their best interests in mind and are taking all measures possible to protect them.

The Fears

“There is a lot of fear in terms of ‘does my employer know what they need to be doing?’” Arvig said. “The employer is probably not a medical expert but is charged with a medical problem – keeping people safe. Many work environments are not set up for social distancing. It’s a big challenge.”

Changes in home life have created a whole other set of new challenges for many workers. Children have been home since schools have closed, and even in the summer, many daycare facilities are likely to be closed. That creates concerns about childcare for many workers.

“The biggest thing they are going to be feeling is probably a sense of confusion. Given how rapidly things are changing, no one knows exactly what the right thing is to do or how we should be functioning in public and from week to week the rules may change,” Arvig said.

“In terms of going back to the office you’re going to be dealing with a lot of fear and anxiety; fear of ‘what would happen if I got sick, or there was an outbreak? How would that impact me? My job safety? My kids? My elderly parents?’”

For example, employees may be concerned about such things as ‘what if I touch a pen someone else has touched?’ And, ‘are they sanitizing the building regularly?’

Prepping Workers for Return

Employees increasingly worried about their returns to the workplace may have increased anxiety, making them less engaged. It’s imperative that employers keep constant lines of communication open and reach out to workers before asking them to return.

“Figure out an avenue for video and audio – Zooms, or Skypes. Try to maintain whatever normalcy you can, given the situation,” Arvig said. “We’ve found people struggle with maintaining a schedule when they work from home; taking breaks; clocking in and out.

In-office work typically includes meetings, breaks, lunches. Arvig recommends trying to help employees maintain that same schedule.

One important element of working together that’s missing with remote work is what he called ‘idle banter.’ He suggests trying to keep that in place as much as possible.

“One of the things you can do in terms of idle banter, we’ve started a virtual happy hour,” Arvig said. “It’s off the clock, but a way for people to log in, talk about what their kids, families are doing. Those things are important.”

Phased Returns

Right now, many organizations are planning to resume ‘normal’ operations within their facilities, at least to some extent. Developing a specific plan is key to relieving employees’ concerns and leading to successful returns.

“Figure out how to keep people socially distant, how to work on the assembly line without touching what others have touched,” Arvig advised. “Having a plan that says, ‘we’ve developed this, here are the steps we are going to take; temperature checks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting three times a day, ill people will be asked to stay home for two weeks.’ It really takes some thought to put a plan together to put employees at ease so they are not walking into a war zone.”

The plan should be run by others, both inside and outside the organization, to make sure it thoroughly addresses employees’ fears. Otherwise, workers will find holes in it and think management has not really thought through everything.

One of the most important aspects of such a plan is what happens if someone at work become sick. “What does the plan say we are going to do at that point,” Arvig asked. “Don’t be ambiguous, be very clear. ‘If someone tests positive here’s what we are going to do.’ …Think about what would a worker need to feel safe and supported. If they don’t they may be distracted and not do their job very well.”

Once the plan is developed, it must be communicated to be effective. Communication, admittedly is not always done properly.

“This is failure of leadership all the time. During COVID it’s a massive failure of leadership,” Arvig said. “A once a week email is not enough. With people transitioning back to the office you need to be communicating regularly and not just in writing. Use video platforms for one-to-one conversations and group conversations. Pick up the phone and talk to people. Having a plan is fine but if people don’t know about it, it’s worthless.”

Phase 2 — bringing workers back — should be done carefully and slowly, Arvig advises. “The first days back, take it easy,” he said. “Don’t go for bringing a bunch of people all at once. If you do, that will increase their anxiety. The first couple of days might be a little bit rocky … you probably want to take it slow.”

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