Talent Empowerment
May 21, 2021

How to Address Return to Office Tensions

Early in the pandemic, companies were forced to realize the show does go on with remote work. In fact, employee productivity was at an all-time high for many white-collar organizations. However, the comfortability of working from home quickly transitioned into blurred boundaries and an inability to “shut it down,” leading to a rise in burnout and a decline in wellbeing. At least for some…

In a recent report published by MetLife, almost 50% of workers in their 20s stated that their work-life balance is better now, while only one-quarter of Baby Boomers say the same. This is a point of concern for managers, team leaders, and organizational heads who perhaps no matter what their return-to-work plan is, will fail to please everyone.

The push-pull between employee and employer can lead to a concerning disconnect. But there are numerous ways organizations, human resources, and managers can help ease tensions and effectively tackle difficult conversations.

How Do I Address Return to Office Tensions?

As management consultant Liz Kislik writes in the Harvard Business Review, the key to making the return to work as smooth as possible is to address everyone’s concerns— keyword is everyone. It’s important to have a good pulse on your organization and the many individual concerns and beliefs. A popular way to find out is through anonymous surveys. It just might be your highest response rate, yet!

Let’s look at a common concern. Younger workers worry returning to work may put young or elderly members, who they share a home with, at risk. A risk, understandably, not worth taking. If, for example, your company decided to mandate all employees return to the office full-time, this exact concern should be discussed and the precautions your organization has in place to create a safe environment.

1. Focus on Performance Over Control

Opportunities for collaboration and communication have suffered due to the inability to meet face to face. Zoom fatigue is well-known now, and unless addressed properly, will continue to negatively impact employees. We all became accustomed to turning on our cameras when first working from home. Now, it’s time to prioritize what can be a Slack message, what can be an email, what can be a conference call, and what needs to be face-to-face.

Another major concern when it comes to letting employees work from home is the perceived lack of control over work hours and output. The solution is to give precedence to performance over hours worked. If an employee is underperforming while working from home, perhaps they are unable to perform their best from home and will welcome the chance to return to the office. Or, just as you would pre-pandemic, place them on a performance improvement plan (PIP).For this to work for both employees and managers, there needs to be clear project direction with deadlines.

2. Set Guidelines for Making the Transition Easier

As workers return to the office, make sure you have a plan for a smooth re-entry. At the heart of this plan lies the concern for employee safety, comfort, and flexibility where possible.

Commit to ensuring health and safety

Even with vaccination roll-out, 49% of the responders who participated in the survey conducted by the American Psychological Association were ‘nervous’ about returning to the office. To properly address this concern, develop a comprehensive return to office policy so your employees feel safe coming back to the office.

Some actions and policies you can enforce to ensure health and safety include:

  • Reorganizing the office space, if possible, to reduce exposure.
  • Enforcing social distancing rule even if all people are vaccinated.
  • Limiting participation in meetings to avoid unnecessary exposure.
  • Recommending and enforcing proper sanitization and hygiene practices

Be transparent with your staff about the policy and measures you have taken so far to ensure the safety and health of your employees.

Re-define policy and have a contingency plan

While the worst is over, it is better to prepare for issues that may arise as workers begin to rejoin and come in contact with each other again.

Some possible concerns you should address include:

  • What will the safety and health measures look like if a worker is exposed to the virus or tests positive?
  • How do you ensure the safety of the rest of the staff in this scenario?
  • What would sick leave look like for a sick person?

Having a contingency plan to tackle these issues will allow you to act quickly, efficiently, and with confidence.

Set defined rules

As organizations ask employees to join, there are mixed reactions among workers. Many are reluctant to re-join due to health and safety reasons while others would prefer to continue working from home due to comfort and personal priorities.

In case an employee is reluctant to re-join for any reason, work with HR to see if setting a flexible schedule is possible. Set the priority based on the ‘work’, not the ‘worker’.

  • Set defined rules by segmenting employees according to their role in the organization. If an employee falls into the segment of workers whose presence on-site is optional, they can opt to continue working remotely.
  • Clearly define how long the worker can continue to work remotely and on which conditions. These terms and conditions are largely going to be dependent on the nature of the work, the position and responsibility the employee holds, as well as their previous performance while working remotely.
  • Adopt a hybrid approach if need be, where an employee is allowed to split their time between working on-site and working remotely. This again is dependent on their past performance and the role they have.

A reluctant worker will not be able to perform at their best. It’s best to communicate with transparency while remembering we’re all humans, and setting clear guidelines for what’s appropriate and what’s not.  


With calls for a return to the office, there is a bit of uncertainty as well as hope for a quick return to normal. Amidst all this, you can make things easier for your employees by setting clear policy guidelines for making the transition as smooth as possible.  

Jenna Murrell


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