The full effect of coronavirus is yet to be seen, especially as new cases spike in parts of the U.S.
However, this pandemic has already greatly disrupted the way we work.
As businesses slowly reopen their offices, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the new workplace will bring. Will there be extra precautions to avoid spreading the virus? How will people feel coming back to work after months of isolation? Or being furloughed?
These are just some of the questions that employers have to ask themselves. There have already been studies into the effects of quarantine and opinions of employees about returning to work — and the verdict is that drastic changes to everyday routine can have a significant impact on one’s mental health.
While these results aren’t all that surprising, they are relevant to anyone who wants to dig a little deeper and find out what it is their employees need to feel comfortable returning to work. If they understand their employees better, businesses can create support programs along with a new, better sense of company culture.
Understanding the Psychology of Quarantine
Think back to a couple of months ago. The first warnings of the novel coronavirus appeared across the western hemisphere and the pandemic still seemed so far away. But within days, governments issued orders to stay at home.
Businesses suffered heavy blows, especially financially. At that point, some business owners were forced to let go of their employees, while others sent staff to work from home. However, for a moment, consider how your employees felt.
For starters, they likely experienced uncertainty around whether they’d even be able to keep their jobs. And then came the harsh realities of working from home. It can seem easy — you can lounge on your sofa and work while watching your favorite show — but the reality is often much different.
Most of your employees probably lost their sense of routine: preparing for work in the morning, commuting, working with others, commuting back home. For many employees, that loss of structure can be devastating. It can decrease their sense of productivity and make it much harder to focus on work.
Furthermore, the lines between work and life became blurred. Not having those clear boundaries between work and family life meant that most people kept on working even after eight hours was up. After all, what’s the harm in responding to one last email? But sometimes “one last email” turns into a problem that must be solved, which can mean working long into the night.
Working for longer than necessary, along with other factors like a poor sense of company culture and connectedness, can result in burnout. With burnout comes a lack of productivity and lower quality results.
On the other end of the spectrum, working from home can also mean that people can’t start working. They are at home, the place where they usually relax and rest, not work. So, it can be hard to imagine working in that space. There are numerous distractions as well — TV shows, video games, food, chores, etc.
Stress and anxiety can also be detrimental to productive work. When your employees’ minds are cluttered with fears of what will happen to them, they are more likely to stray towards relaxing activities instead of work.
Then there’s the sense of isolation and loneliness that can accompany remote work, which is especially true for people who live alone. According to research, parents may not feel as strong of an impact on their mental health, since interacting with their family can break up the monotony of days under quarantine.
And yet, children present a different set of issues. With schools closed, grandparents likely in quarantine, and other help unavailable, parents have to work while also taking care of their children full-time. This can be extremely difficult, especially if the children are too young to entertain themselves.
Parents with older children gained a second job on top of their regular ones — that of their children’s teacher. So, that presented an extra set of obstacles to productive work.
With both parents and children frustrated, focusing on work in the midst of quarantine was certainly difficult.
On top of that, being quarantined at home meant a lack of physical activity as well. Staying active is extremely important for mental health — it decreases stress levels and makes people more energetic; however, stuck in their home, most people didn’t have much room to exercise.
In a normal setting, your employees probably get more exercise through their daily routine — including their commute, walking during lunch, shopping, taking the stairs, etc. Taking this physical movement away can have consequences for mental health.
Finally, communication with coworkers was probably more difficult than ever. In an office setting, people talk freely to each other whenever they want. But with everyone telecommuting, there’s a lot of time spent waiting and a decreased sense of connection and belonging to the team. One report stated that 35% of respondents felt that telecommuting took a toll on their mental health.
How People Feel About Coming Back to Work
Going back to “normal” will affect different people in different ways. Some will be more than happy to return to their routine, office, and colleagues. However, most employees will have concerns about going back.
A study called The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: Rapid review of the evidence concluded that the effects of quarantine persist long after the subjects are released from isolation. In fact, 54% of people surveyed avoided anyone sneezing or displaying other signs of illness and 26% even avoided crowded public spaces.
This goes to show how much of an impact this pandemic can have long-term. If a person is scared of going back to work because it could be dangerous for them, they will be less productive.
Furthermore, parents may be worried about what to do with their children while they are at work. In many places, schools and daycares are not yet open, and even if they were, parents could be worried about the risk of their child contracting the virus.
All of these worries will not be easy to deal with within the workplace. With 54% of workers reporting fear of getting the virus at work, not to mention experiencing persistent anxiety about the future, the way we work will have to change.
How Coronavirus Changed the Way We Work
On a positive note, this pandemic has pushed many businesses in a new direction.
For example, previously, a broad acceptance of remote work was long-postponed due to some false assumptions. However, with most businesses now forced to work remotely, many have realized the benefits of more flexible schedules.
Our reliance on paper-pushing has also decreased. With no way to physically sign or pay something, businesses have broadly accepted digital tools like automatic invoice management software and task management systems.
We have also learned to be more efficient with our time. Clients and customers have grown to appreciate the efficiency of virtual meetings. Despite the fact that in-person meetings aren’t fully going away, people will think more carefully about which situations actually require this form of communication.
Efficiency has also spread to operations. With the need for employees to access the same information at the same time from different locations (all miles away from the source), headless CMS has become crucial for maintaining open lines of communication and transparency.
Of course, not all of these changes will stick. But the need to go remote has given businesses a chance to try some new approaches and tools, some of which they will likely hang onto when normal day-to-day operations resume.
How to Make the Transition to the “New Normal” Smoother
Once your employees are back at their desks, you have to provide enough support to help them transition into this new normal. Morale will be undoubtedly low, so you have to put in real effort to make people feel like valued members of a community. Here are some suggestions.
1. Support Your Employees’ Mental Health
The biggest threats to your employees’ mental health as they return to work will be feelings of fear, anxiety, and high-stress levels. You should address these difficulties as soon as possible. Mental health is crucial in the workplace, even more so during a pandemic.
Start by training managers and HR staff in recognizing symptoms of distress. This should ideally happen before your employees go back to work in the office, so you can address issues as quickly as they occur.
The main point is to ensure that your employees feel heard and understood. Each of them has had a unique experience with quarantine. While some may have taken it well, most will probably need support, especially those whose family members were affected by the virus.
Encourage support among coworkers as well. An employee will be more likely to share their worries with a fellow employee than a manager, simply out of fear of it affecting their status in the company.
You should also further support the idea of open doors. If an employee has a concern, they should feel comfortable talking to someone.
Finally, listen to your team’s suggestions. Your employees know what will make them feel better at work and listening to their ideas could benefit your entire organization, as well as ensure individuals are heard.
2. Pay Attention to Hygiene Needs
Hygiene is more important than ever during the pandemic. And since one of the biggest concerns employees have is contracting the virus while in the office, you should do your best to ease their fears.
For starters, clean the office more frequently. Deep cleans are excellent in battling germs. Make hygiene products readily available in the bathrooms, kitchen (if applicable), and other high-traffic areas. This includes soap, hand sanitizers, and paper towels. If possible, offer masks and gloves upon entrance to the building.
To further relieve any anxiety employees have about contracting the virus, you could create clear hygiene guidelines in the workspace. Request that masks and gloves are worn at all times and remind people to wash their hands more frequently. When your employees aren’t preoccupied with concerns about cleanliness, they’ll be more likely to achieve ‘deep work’ and, thus, maintain a high level of productivity.
You can also ask people with any symptoms — even if it’s just cold or mild weakness — to stay at home. Testing for the virus would be beneficial, but tests are not always accessible, so your next best bet is to minimize the odds of anyone bringing the illness into work.
3. Time Off Is More Important Than Ever
One of the best ways to support your employees and show that you care about them is to provide extra time off as needed. There are several ways that this can be done.
For one, you could offer flexible schedules. This means that your employees would still work eight hours per day, but not necessarily work from 9-5. For example, if both parents work, one of them could postpone their shift by a few hours so they can watch the kids while the other one finishes up at work. People will have more options this way. If they need to take care of someone else, or themselves, they will have time to do it and come back to work with one less thing on their minds.
Another option is to allow employees to continue working remotely until they feel comfortable enough to return to the office. Naturally, you could base the decision to allow remote work from the results experienced during the quarantine. If there were no serious dips in productivity (all things considered) or missed deadlines, there’s no reason to force employees to come back before they’re ready.
You could also offer additional sick days or dedicated days off for mental health. This would allow your employees to take a day off when they need to gather their thoughts and dedicate some time to themselves.
4. Office Wellness
Physical activity, as mentioned above, is extremely important for mental health and overall feelings of wellness. Since people probably haven’t had much exercise in the months of self-isolation, consider offering programs to help employees get moving again.
For instance, encourage employees to take breaks during the day to visit their gym. If you have the space available, you could even turn a section of your office into a fitness area so your employees don’t have to go far to get their workout in.
Support walks during breaks and perhaps even start a fitness challenge. A friendly competition might help your employees take their minds off the current state of the world and pick up a healthy new hobby. For example, the challenge could involve running laps around your office building or getting the most steps in the course of a week.
The benefits of a workplace fitness culture are endless and your employees will appreciate some positive encouragement. Another easy, health-friendly challenge would be to see who can maintain a steady intake of water.
Remember that meditation is also important. Just like fitness, mediation has numerous benefits for your employees, and it could boost their productivity. If possible, offer a serene space in your office where employees can spend some time quietly sitting or meditate.
Help Your Teams Transition Into the New Normal
The novel coronavirus has disrupted our workplaces and parts of our lives and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. However, it has also created you an opportunity to show your employees how much you value them and their contributions to your company.
Try to be as understanding as possible while the world shifts to the new normal. If you handle the return to work with patience and proactive safety measures, you can help your team perform their best — and your company could reap the rewards for years to come.