Stephanie Hoepner was so nervous about what to wear on her first day back in the office that she hired a wardrobe consultant.
She was extremely relieved one recent day as she twirled in front of a mirror, trying on an outfit at Elite Repeat in St. Paul that Nancy Dilts had chosen.
“People joke about it and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to have to put on pants now. But it’s more than that,” said Hoepner, who works at a large financial services company.
His whole routine will change – again. She is now used to taking a mid-afternoon break to pick up her child from school and then finish her work. She’s used to having privacy when she’s not in a virtual meeting.
“I’m going back to the office, where it’s a boxing ground. I feel very exposed,” Hoepner said. “I’ve worked in this before, but now it feels a little too much.”
More employers are reminding office workers now that COVID-19 cases are low, and it’s producing emotional and financial headwinds as people worry about everything from commuting to interpersonal communications and budgeting for clothes and lunches.
Tensions are rising and more and more employees are calling employee hotlines and contacting mental health counsellors.
“More and more people are calling … with higher levels of distress and the need to speak to a counselor immediately,” said Barb Veder, chief clinician who leads LifeWorks’ global employee assistance programs for 25,000. client companies. “With the return to work, there is a new level of fluctuation and worry.”
This is understandable, she says, given the seismic disturbances of the past two years. The pandemic has caused fear and isolation and taught people to be careful.
Then there was the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, a tumultuous election, the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Now, as people return, there are conflicts on a global scale.
“If it was as simple as a simple pandemic, we could deal with it,” Veder said. “But it’s the other layer of monumental social change and disruption” that gets workers on edge and makes them wonder if they can handle another transition.
Results from employee surveys and focus groups from Maplewood-based 3M have led management to shelve mandatory return-to-work policies for office workers. Instead, they let workers choose where they want to work — and their hours — as long as they can perform their duties.
The decision was met with relief, said Jeannee Hoppe, director of organizational design and change management at 3M.
“All the stresses of COVID are hitting everyone. And that [back-to-the-office move] was one more thing they didn’t have to understand. Instead, it was something they could actually control and choose with,” Hoppe said. “Sometimes it makes people feel good just to have the option to choose something. “
The Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis (JFCS) is bringing its staff back to the workplace. They spent one day a week there in March, two days a week this month and three in May.
“We as staff are going through this [thought process] of ‘Oh, gas prices are going up. I have to pay for gas again and determine the schedules. People have to park on the ramps downtown and we have to think about how much it costs,” said Sheilah Howard, who runs JFCS’ career services arm. “If you’ve been used to two years of not having to pay for these things, all of a sudden I feel like I’m shocked by a sticker.”
Pahoua Yang, vice president of community mental health and wellness for the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, said there were apprehensions about travel and other concerns related to the “great return.”
“Two years ago we completely disrupted everyone’s life by sending them home,” she said. “They just figured out how to work from home and developed some sense of normalcy. And now we’re disrupting their lives again.”
Now workers need to understand childcare and other care duties, she said. They must understand the journey.
“There are emotional and financial costs to all of this,” said Yang, who as a mother of five understands firsthand. She returned to her St. Paul office three weeks ago to lead her 188-member team in person and said she forgot her lunch every day of her first week.
She relearns how to get ready in the morning while managing her children as they leave for three different schools with three different start times. She had to relearn that her 25-minute commute turns into 60-90 minutes when there is snow.
“These are all things you just did before the pandemic,” Yang said.
Her husband, who is a judge, decided he would continue to conduct hearings remotely. This way, they don’t have to take up after-school programs, which would cost $2,000 a month.
Yang said Wilder is trying to accommodate workers who have trouble understanding all the logistics or still feel worried about COVID-19.
“We’re finding different ways to alleviate some of that anxiety,” including having some employees come in less often than their peers, Yang said. “We want to find a solution that works for everyone. We have great staff that we want to keep.”
Still, Yang asked all of his managers to return to the office to model the new behavior for everyone. “We have to accept the unexpected,” Yang tells his staff. “Once we accept that, we feel less anxious.”
In March, human resources consulting giant Robert Half Inc. reported that 81% of managers surveyed in Minneapolis wanted their teams to return to the office. Meanwhile, 65% of millennial workers surveyed nationally and 55% of working parents said they would consider quitting if forced back into the office.
Even so, the Pew Research Center found that 76% of workers surveyed in January said they would prefer to continue working remotely from home.
Employers introduce flexibility to ease anxiety. Some have a policy like 3M, allowing workers to choose. Others specify a number of days that employees must be in the office. Still others have established hybrid schedules or full-time office hours.
Radisson Hotel Group Americas, for example, is letting its 225 headquarters employees in St. Louis Park choose how they want to work, but suspending free lunches, social hours and other incentives to coax employees.
In a recent report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), experts warned that employers should adopt “welcoming” communication strategies for returning employees. Mark Codd, SHRM member and director of labor relations at Publix Super Markets, noted that “the organization is essentially re-establishing a new alliance with returning employees.”
SHRM leaders are also training HR professionals in companies to be clear about how their company will deal with COVID-19 outbreaks, how it will train people to adapt to hybrid workflows or absences employees, and how it will handle possible spikes in family medical leave requests. or complaints about high travel costs.
Stacy Brindise, Senior Director of Guest Experience for Radisson Hotel Group America, is a mother of two elementary-aged children. She decided to come to the office only three days a week. The new schedule will give him a day between office days without the commute time, plus extra time at lunch, to take care of the home front.
“I was definitely a little nervous or just knew it would be an adjustment to go back,” she said. “What I think the company has done really well is give employees the flexibility to maybe go back to the office.”