Ease staff’s fears about returning to the office

By Anita Dennis

Fifteen-person firm Goldglit & Company LLP went remote virtually overnight last March when New York City was among the first locations to be hard-hit by COVID-19. As the pandemic’s impact receded in the city, the firm decided to reopen its offices on June 1, 2020, and allow staff to choose between remote or in-office work, an arrangement that’s still in place. Despite the firm’s efforts to minimize staff’s anxieties, along the way two staff members moved home to other parts of the country during the pandemic. “It’s a work in progress,” Michael Stein, CPA, managing partner, said.

Many organizations are opening their doors again and inviting employees to come back to the office. Despite renewed optimism as the pandemic’s impact subsides, however, some employees may be reluctant to leave the security of their home offices. One survey found that 66% of employees were worried about returning to the workplace due to health and safety concerns.

Here are some ways to help staff deal with the challenges of being on-site once again:

Get ahead of anxieties. Transparency and an open-door policy benefited Stein’s firm. In a memo before reopening, the firm outlined the health and safety efforts it had made, which included following guidance on social distancing, requiring quarantining for those exposed to the virus, reminding everyone that office cubicles did allow for social distance, disinfecting surfaces, performing random temperature checks, and setting up acrylic shields in shared offices.

Give staff greater control. Volition, or having a say in decision-making about your life, is a basic human need, noted Lauren Florko of Triple Threat Consulting, who holds a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology. Firms that allow staff a choice about whether they work in the office or remotely can help meet this need, as can asking for their input. Stein’s firm’s communications about reopening asked staff for enhancements or additional suggestions. “We opened the door for people to express any concerns,” he said.

Share insights on decision-making. Staff “may be better equipped to handle challenges if they know the reasons why decisions have been made,” advised Kalina Michalska, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “They’ll be more likely to work toward a shared goal.” Discussing the thought process behind the guidelines for reopening the office can help staff feel more confident. Smaller firms can take advantage of their size by offering information in all-staff meetings or one-to-one conversations, Michalska said.

Accentuate the positive. To frame the return to the office in a positive light, firm leaders can brainstorm some of the potential benefits and share them with staff. For example, the prospect of going back to work may be less daunting for staff if they are reminded that a friend is waiting for them there. In one survey, 52% of respondents said they would decide where to work based on who else plans to work on-site that day. In communications, remind employees that the return to the office is a way to see familiar colleagues and a chance to support each other going forward.

Practice empathy. There’s a common misunderstanding that empathy means imagining how you would feel if you were in another person’s shoes, said Michalska, whose lab studies empathy. In fact, it’s really about understanding that how they feel might be different from how you would react in their situation. Instead of seeing employees as resistant or fearful, for example, empathizing would mean seeing what concerns or circumstances are behind their feelings and considering ways to acknowledge or address them.

Be prepared for ups and downs. Change is not an event but an ongoing process, Florko said, which means that comfort levels can fluctuate. She recommended that managers or firm leaders check in regularly over the coming months to gauge how well people are doing. As staff may have concerns about revealing problems to their own supervisors, it can help if they can discuss their anxieties with an HR staff member or other firm leader who is not their boss, Florko said.

Know that firm leaders need support, too. Consider joining a networking group with other firm leaders who have similar concerns. John and Dina Kellogg, CPAs, partners at eight-person Kellogg and Kellogg PC, in Fort Worth, Texas, benefited from contact with a long-standing support group during the early weeks of the pandemic. They are members of a PCPS Small Firm Networking Group, and they had weekly calls with the other members during the crisis. Now, the group discusses such hot topics as staffing and transitioning to the office, during its regularly scheduled twice-yearly meetings. “Having a networking group of people across the country was very valuable,” John Kellogg said. The AICPA and state societies offer multiple ways to connect with other firms, including networking groups and conferences.

Focus on the opportunities. The return to the office may seem more appealing if individuals and firms focus on the prospects and options it may offer. The pandemic has demonstrated that quick action and radical solutions can offer new benefits. After seeing the upsides to change, people may be less resistant to new ideas than they were a year ago, Michalska said. “We get set in our ways, then we’re surprised to notice that we don’t have to be,” she observed. “When everything is disrupted, there is an opportunity to create change.”

Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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