Return to the Office:

Strategies for empowering your team

As deconfinement measures roll out across Canada, many organizations are taking stock of return-to-work plans that they worry could be met with varying degrees of member stress.

According to the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association), however, a certain amount of anxiety around the idea of returning to previous ways of working and engaging with others is natural and expected. 

With that in mind, there are steps your organization can take to help smooth the work transition whether your team is returning to the office full time, adopting a hybrid model, or working remotely on a permanent basis.

In this return-to-the-office guide, we take a practical look at what organizational leaders and managers should consider when developing a deconfinement strategy aimed at empowering their teams to move forward.

Return-to-work reluctance

Vaccination rates may be up and case numbers down, but after months of being told the workplace isn’t safe, Canadians have mixed feelings about returning to the office in the wake of COVID-19.

Physical health fears are undoubtedly a factor. But with research also suggesting that employees with access to work-from-home options are as much as 30% less likely to experience COVID-19-related workplace burnout, mental health may pose the bigger concern. 

What can employers do to pave the way back to the office while respecting their team’s stress or anxiety-fueled worries?

If employees have been working remotely, for example, and you’d like to move them back to the office, you might start by conducting a poll to ask:

Once you’ve gauged where your team is at, you can create and communicate a detailed plan for keeping them safe and healthy in your shared physical workspace. 

Outlining your in-office safety measures (will you be providing hand-washing prompts, socially distanced workspaces, plexiglass dividers?)

Describing any new work processes (like defaulting to virtual meetings whenever possible, for example)

Laying out ways team members can respect one another’s need to feel safe (such as issuing regular reminders to keep a comfortable distance in break rooms and during one-on-one conversations)

Above all, making affirmative communication a habit will show your team they’re both heard and supported during this time of change: interact with staff regularly and transparently, be proactive about asking for feedback, and engage in active listening as you work toward mutually positive solutions. 

The more personal control you can grant over what goes on in a team member’s workspace, the more you’ll empower them to feel comfortable spending time with colleagues again. Being as flexible as possible will also make it easier for your organization to uphold any new boundaries built into your return-to-work strategy. 

Accommodating remote team members

For some organizations, addressing individual concerns may include accommodating a staff member’s need to temporarily (or permanently) carry on with certain lockdown measures, like continuing to work outside the office.

To ensure hybrid teams collaborate effectively, experts suggest incorporating a few key rules into your return-to-work plan:

Accommodate remote staff by setting up a video link for all in-office meetings

Have your entire team, regardless of location, join company-wide meetings remotely

Establish a measure of co-worker overlap with a mandatory set of online working hours

If remote work will remain a functional part of your new business normal, make a point of calling into meetings from your own home once or twice a week to help normalize this new hybrid approach for your team.

How business managers and leaders can help themselves

Employers aren’t immune to the difficulties of readapting to the workplace. 
If you’re feeling anxious about how you or your team will navigate the transition, here are 3 ways you can help your members by also helping yourself:

Be prepared to encounter different attitudes. 

Some people will be happy to be back in the office, for example, while others may have preferred to wait.

Be mindful of your own attitude and reactions.

Demonstrating understanding and empathy will help smooth your renewed interactions.

Be aware of underlying tension. 

Rather than letting pressure build among colleagues, surface concerns early by communicating openly and often.

You’ll also make transitioning your team back to the office easier on yourself if you manage expectations by involving members as much as possible in your plan, and keeping them informed of any changes (and the reasons for them) in real time.

Coping strategies for return-to-the-office anxiety or stress

If employees are feeling anxious or stressed about your plan for getting back to the office, here are 7 coping strategies you can recommend to help offset their worries:

Ask questions to get the information you need to feel comfortable

Voice concerns or limitations around potential difficulties transitioning back to work so they can be addressed

Listen to expectations and follow recommendations for staying, and helping others stay safe

Find your motivation for returning to a regular work routine (a regained sense of purpose, human contact, personal fulfillment, financial benefit?)

Plan and practice your new workday routine a few days before going back to the office

Stay focused on what’s in your control as you navigate your new work normal

Find a back-to-work buddy you can talk to when you’re feeling anxious about being back in the office

For example, sticking to and encouraging healthy eating and moving habits inside and outside the office will help keep your team feeling good. Simple stress management techniques like desk-based breathing and stretching exercises are also a great tool for keeping negative feelings in check. 

Be sure to also remind your employees to take full advantage of your company’s wellness program by accessing services like Dialogue’s virtual platform for physical and mental health support.

How Dialogue is supporting organizations and their members

With healthcare options like primary care, stress & mental health support, and a full-featured employee assistance program, Dialogue’s virtual services are helping organizations emphasize a culture of caring as their teams transition back to the workplace.

"In the last year we have seen the taboos about discussing concerns, worries or mental health issues all but disappear. Virtual platforms have provided an important ally for many and as healthcare providers, we often feel privileged just to be accessible to provide support. More recently, during virtual encounters, deconfinement anxiety or apprehension to a return to the workplace does come up. These conversations are often not only about returning to the workplace but about returning or finding our personnal and collective new normal.  As we gather again after sharing such a unique and disruptive experience, it’s OK to feel unsettled."

"We have had to adapt a lot in the last year and will adapt to thrive in our new normal with patience, kindness to ourselves and others, and by reaching out for help."

Table of contents

“What are your biggest concerns regarding a return to the office?”

“What would make the transition easier for you?”

“How many days a week would you ideally like to come into work, versus working from home?”

“What elements, if any, do you appreciate about working from home?”

“What factors, if any, do you not enjoy about working from home?”

This could include:








First and foremost, clear and frequent communication is the key to empowering your team while setting out a return-to-work plan that will benefit everyone. Keeping staff informed before and during the transition will go a long way toward reducing stress around the unknown.


What business leaders and managers can do to empower their teams


want to go back to the office full time.

of workers

A recent survey from Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies, for example, found that


It may also be a good idea to point employees toward trustworthy websites or resources they can access when they want more information about returning to work during COVID-19.

Modeling day-to-day best health practices can also make the transition easier. 

In the year between January 2020 and January 2021, for example, COVID-19’s impact increased Dialogue member demand for mental health consultations

“Some people have found themselves surprised to have some deconfinement anxiety as well as a ‘let-down’ reflex. Many who had been managing on “adrenaline” have found that now that stress levels have dropped, they are a little more tired and demotivated now. Many have not been able to put this feeling into words or to identify it. Because of the general improvement in the situation some also don’t understand why this is happening and may feel reluctant to discuss it. Dialogue can help.”

Clearly, alleviating anxiety and promoting good health isn’t just critical to restoring normality: it’s a key consideration for both transitioning your team back to the office, and navigating the new future of work. 

Planning your return-to-the-office strategy as a process, rather than as a one-time event will ensure you set your team up for long term success by empowering them physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

An opinion poll commissioned by CMHA Ontario, meanwhile, revealed that more than three-quarters of respondents (77%) believe more mental health supports will be necessary to help society as we move forward from the pandemic.

from 7% to 30%.








Finally, help your team tune into how things are going, and how they’re feeling about it all, by encouraging them to:

Speak openly with their colleagues about what they’re experiencing

Communicate regularly with management about the support that they need

Avoid negative thinking by taking time to truly listen, understand, and be understood

Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

Learn more about corporate wellness strategies you can implement for your organization.

Learn More

Dr. Marc Robin
Medical Director at Dialogue

Dr. Daniel Lalla
Physician at Dialogue

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Watch this video developed by one of Dialogue’s mental health professionals for more tips and tricks for employees

Watch this video developed by one of Dialogue’s mental health professionals for more empowering tips for managers