How can employers support the work-life balance of staff on their return to the workplace?

  • Employers have to demonstrate that they are listening, learning, and that the wellbeing of staff remains a number one priority.
  • There is a need to focus on the positives of returning, such as increased productivity, less loneliness and improved communication.
  • A more dispersed workforce also requires better technology to easily access, understand and choose benefits, wherever an employee is working.

With many employees gradually returning to physical workplaces since Covid-19 (Coronavirus) restrictions were lifted in summer 2021, employers now face the challenge of supporting their work-life balance. Some will have not have faced a commute or been in close contact with colleagues for over a year, and may have got used to an improved work-life balance that they will most likely want to continue after returning.

Employees’ expectations

For employees who have spent the past 18 months fully remote, the shift from working at home to returning to pre-Coronavirus workspaces will be an adjustment.

Catrin Lewis, head of global engagement and internal communications at Reward Gateway, believes there are various ways that employers can support that transition, starting with listening to staff through surveys or other tools to gauge how they are feeling in order to make decisions based on their needs and concerns. “For organisations that have employees returning to a physical work space: encourage new routines. Consider ways to ensure employees can still take time in the morning for themselves before jumping into work or a commute, this helps prepare their body and mind by getting back into old routines. For example, being flexible with working hours means employees aren’t rushing to reach the office at 9am and can commute at a time when it is quieter and less stressful for them,” she says.

Lewis adds that another way is through an internal communications platform that can tailor information for both managers and employees that help address any concerns. From there, managers can reference materials accordingly as questions arise.

While employees are broadly expecting that their workplace will have good quality safety procedures in place, they are not expecting their employers to have answered every question about how hybrid working might operate in practice.

Hedda Bird, CEO of 3C Performance Management Specialists, states that managing expectations means being clear about what is already decided and what is still to be discovered. “If there are rules to be enforced, ensure that they are enforced and not allowing some people to ignore them. Hybrid working is new to lots of organisations, if employers offer guidelines rather than rules, and make a conscious effort to learn from experience, that tells employees what the boundaries are. As always, frequent, consistent communication works best,” she says.

Employers should be clear with employees about what is and isn’t acceptable, while also acknowledging that everyone’s personal circumstances are different.

Kathryn Kendall, chief people officer at Benefex, explains that in order for trust to not erode, employers have to demonstrate that they are listening, learning, and that the wellbeing of staff remains a number one priority. “Employers should seek to over communicate during this period, considering the needs of what for many will be a hybrid workforce, and not be afraid to be honest and open about the fact that they don’t necessarily have all of the answers right now,” she says.

It’s important that employees’ expectations are managed and they are aware that things will not be how they were before the pandemic.

Jamie Mackenzie, director at Sodexo Engage, states that businesses will now have to learn to adapt again and develop a hybrid approach which suits them. “Employees should be made aware this isn’t something which will happen overnight, but over time, and be sure to communicate each step proposed and taken, which can help to set expectations before they grow,” he says.

The ideal work-life balance?

The pandemic will have given employers a good idea of just what can be achieved by working from home, but some may have forgotten what the workplace has to offer.

Bird suggests encouraging people to come back, meet and physically work alongside each other. “Once staff have come back together, you may find many are happy to work with a 60/40 split between the office and home. To support your managers, give clear guidelines about what the organisation expects as a minimum of office working. The whole organisation will do best when focused on outputs not inputs. So, focus on what people deliver, not on where they deliver it from.”

For employees experiencing anxiety, sessions on grounding techniques, deep breathing, yoga or meditation classes could be beneficial.

Recognition can also be a way to ease the transition, suggests Lewis. “For instance, employers can use e-cards to recognise employees on their successful return to reinforce the positive impact of being in person with teammates again. These cards may say, ‘Welcome back’ or ‘So great to be back together again’. In doing so, managers recognise that the return to office may not be easy, but it’s really appreciated,” she says.

Staff will have varied views of what the right work-life balance is, as everyone suits something different.

Nicki Robson, managing director of Breedon Consulting believes that flexibility and communication are key. “Having flexible hybrid working options where individuals can choose their preferred pattern of office and home working rather than having a set pattern for all would be good where possible, such as a minimum of two days per week in the office. Also, there is a need to focus on the positives of returning, such as increased productivity, less loneliness and improved communication,” she states.

It is worthwhile having training in place to help management teams recognise stress, and what to do when it’s spotted.

Mackenzie suggests that employers should encourage their team to take regular breaks and book time off to avoid employees experiencing burnout. “Some businesses give employees the opportunity to purchase additional annual leave, which gives staff more opportunities to relax and press the reset button,” he states.

Benefits to ease the return

While wellbeing and voluntary benefits such as yoga classes and discounted gym memberships can provide incentives for healthy behaviours, social activities like team lunches will help break the ice.

Bird recommends managers have welcome back conversations with their team, as well as with each worker. “Don’t forget to ask managers to check in with individuals to see if they have specific health or wellbeing needs of which the organisation should be aware,” she says.

Aspects of employee benefits that were important before and during the pandemic are still priorities for many.

Lewis suggests that an employee wellbeing programme can support employees’ return to the office. “Incorporated into an engagement platform that is accessible anytime and anywhere, a wellbeing programme can encourage healthy eating and fitness activities, as well as provide tools to support mental and emotional wellbeing,” she states.

A way to support staff members as they come back to the office could be a season ticket loan to lessen the costs of their commute.

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Mackenzie says: “With benefits like employee assistance programmes to provide additional support to those who need it, schemes like [bikes-for-work] to bring back some regular physical activity during the day, employers can do a lot to help keep their team healthy during this time.”

Meanwhile, Gethin Nadin, director of employee wellbeing at Benefex, believes benefits that help to better manage time outside of work with activities that are important to staff will become increasingly popular. “Benefits like holiday trading and increased holiday allowance will be on the rise. However, a more dispersed workforce also requires better technology to easily access, understand and choose benefits, wherever an employee is working.”