Krishen Iyer’s Outline for Middle-Managers Navigating Return-to-Work Anxiety

StrategyDriven Managing Your People Article |Middle Manager|Krishen Iyer's Outline for Middle-Managers Navigating Return-to-Work AnxietyAfter over one year of navigating an unthinkable public health crisis, the world is beginning to look more normal. As a result, executives and managers alike have started to brainstorm strategies for returning to the office. For some, returning to the office represents a long-awaited victory over COVID-19. However, others do not share that same optimism. While professional leaders cannot control their employees’ attitudes towards the pandemic, they can control their rhetoric towards return-to-work anxiety.

Return-to-work anxiety is valid. Some employees may have health issues that make them more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 or more likely to have severe complications from the coronavirus. Simultaneously, plenty of professionals have caretaking responsibilities that could be impacted by working predominantly outside the home.

Regardless of the circumstances, it should be the top priority of professional leadership to empathize with their reluctant employees who are hesitant to scale back remote work. More specifically, it may be difficult for middle-managers to balance their team’s concerns with the organization’s intentions. If you are feeling stuck, here is a step-by-step outline for middle-managers navigating return-to-work anxiety.

Step #1: Assess your team’s attitudes towards returning to the office.

The study of public policy teaches us that no policy can be effectively implemented unless the public consents. For this reason, it is critical to do your best as a middle manager to meet your employees where they are at with regards to returning to the office. The nuance with assessing your team’s attitudes lies in that you cannot simply assume where your team stands on returning to the office unless you ask.

Even when prompted to speak their truth, your team might not necessarily be telling you the whole story. Take Linda Hill’s perception, for example. A professor at Harvard Business School and author of Being the Boss, Hill finds that “people are fearful of looking weak or not living up to expectations.” Keeping this in mind, I agree with Hill’s suggestion to use anonymous attitudes to assess what your team thinks about returning to the office. Anonymous survey data can empower you to narrow in on your employees’ concerns, while employees can rest assured that their opinions are heard and addressed.

Step #2: Determine how compromise can factor into your office’s reopening.

If you can give your team options on returning to the office, that should be your first point of action following an anonymous survey. Options should give your team the liberty to choose how often they come to the office, as well as on which days. You can also go the extra mile to meet your team where they are by making adjustments to their office space. For example, if your workplace is in an open-faced cubicle format, feel free to encourage your team to reach out to you privately about finding a more semi-private space to work in the office.

As a middle manager, empathy matters, especially when retaining talent. A FlexJobs survey found that 58% of professionals would “absolutely look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position.” The survey, which compiled data from over 2,000 respondents, also found that 65% of participants sought to work remotely full-time post-pandemic, whereas 33% of the study preferred a hybrid work arrangement. When considering the workforce’s acclimation to remote work, we see all the more reasons for managers to compromise with their employees about their office schedule.

Step #3: People-pleasing does not work.

Compromise is essential, but so is honesty. Make sure that you do not make any promises that you must later retract. Hill reminds us that no one can say with absolute certainty that returning to the office has “zero risks” from a public health insight. Offering your full transparency and honesty with your team can be a moment of growth for you as a manager. It may be a difficult conversation to let your employees know that some degree of compromise might not be possible, but the best decisions are rarely the easiest.

Although compromise might be tricky to balance with other internal stakeholders, you should, of course, try to make every employee as satisfied as possible. If someone on your team makes a novel request that you are unsure about, do not confirm that the accommodations can be made until you speak with senior leadership or your human resources department. That might be difficult to remember, given your innate desire to retain your team, but full transparency and honesty will make the decision-making process easy for everyone involved in the long run.

About the Author

Krishen Iyer is the founder of MAIS Consulting Services, a Southern California-based firm with a vertical focus on health and dental insurance distribution centers. MAIS Consulting provides innovative contracting and marketing solutions to their clients, a mission that draws on Iyer’s nearly two-decades-long career in digital marketing on behalf of insurance distribution centers.

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