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Bringing Home Back to Work

A woman sitting at a single desk facing a window with a large plant and a laptop, drinking tea

Supporting your employees back at the office

There is increasing pressure to consider the move back to the office and to attend face-to-face meetings, events, and conferences.

This, in reality, may be the first time in over 18 months we’ve been to a place of work or even met our managers or our colleagues in person. It may have been a long time since we put on our work clothes, commuted, and experienced the hustle and bustle of fighting for space.

We need to be mindful that there will have been changes for everyone, not just the new employee, but right from the CEO to the receptionist.

Possibly every single person walking through that door of the building or into a meeting room will be having a variety of feelings. Excitement, anticipation and probably feelings of anxiety - not only about the big changes, but concern for what may appear as small things to some.

For some, the buzz of the office may feel like sensory overload. For the germ-phobic, drinking tea and coffee in a communal meeting may be hugely concerning.

The flip to home working was, for some, a great way of working and provided optimal working conditions and resulted in greater productivity. The flexibility to have cameras on or off, being able to choose to stand, walk around, or even meet from their bed - was freeing.

Making adjustments to working practices became a commonly allowed discussion for all, and sharing vulnerabilities and struggles also became the norm.

Crucially, home working offered opportunities to access new work from across the globe and saw increased employment rates for disabled people working from home.

But was working from home (WFH) great for all?

The reality, based on numerous studies, is that many of us still want and need human interaction for our mental health and wellbeing. In fact, loneliness in the workplace can impact our commitment to that organization.

We need to consider different people's needs to determine hybrid solutions and accept that these may change over our working life.

Creating an equitable balance for meetings

How do we mimic some of the WFH accommodations and translate them into the workplace?

We may not want people behaving in the office exactly as they did at home, such as wearing ultra-casual clothes and listening to loud music, as these may not be conducive for communal workspaces.

However, we can provide our employees with familiar and appropriate ways to ease back into the workplace.

Being stuck at home and not having access to recreational activities safely for over a year and a half means most of us now prefer loose-fitting and comfortable clothes. Consider implementing a ‘Casual Friday’ policy for the first month or so for employees to ease back into the office. Perhaps even examine your dress codes permanently.

For those who worked from home for 18 months alongside roommates, kids, or loud neighbors, noise-cancelling headphones were a savior. Wearing headphones in an office setting can sometimes hinder collaborations and can prevent cross-departmental connection over casual conversation, something that is crucial to a well-performing organization. However, the constant noise and conversation in an office can be overwhelming, especially for your neurodivergent colleagues who may have thrived in the quieter environment of home.

Consider quiet work hubs where people can go if they need to focus and accept some people will need to wear headphones to focus on some tasks. This allows people to cut out extraneous noise or choose their preferred music without disturbing others.

When rethinking the office environment as employees return, consider universal design principles and not just creating solutions that work only for the average person in your team.

Think how we often provide a choice of drinks at a meeting and label foods to avoid nuts and gluten, and see this as an everyday adjustment.

Extend your environmental checks so that you consider how to include all neurodiverse people who want to be present at the real - or virtual - table in the manner that works best for them. Some aspects to check for include:

  • Providing information about any changes in policies and practices that have happened that may cause anxiety. E.g., use of kitchens, microwaves, hot desks, etc.

  • Explaining how to gain support or adjustments, if required.

  • Providing a glossary of work terms and phrases.

  • Discussing communication preferences for virtual and face-to-face meetings.

  • Having closed caption options available for all virtual meetings as standard.

  • Being explicit on how to interact in a meeting so everyone has an opportunity to engage. E.g., using chat, Q&A and polling features.

  • Providing some guidance on sending emails explicitly outlining the actions that are expected.

  • Discussing the sensory environment in work settings, such as wearing aftershave and perfume in offices. 

When you consider the first team meeting back in the office, remember the positive impact you can have by making some small low-cost adjustments that will stretch beyond those you think will be helped, and reach a much wider audience.