Easing employee back-to-office anxiety

Easing employee back-to-office anxiety

Aug 27, 2021

 

If you’re feeling anxious about going back to the office, even on a flexible basis, then you’re not alone. There is even a new label for it “return to work anxiety” – not that we haven’t been working – we’ve just been doing it in our pajama bottoms and next to the family cat, while juggling virtual school with the kids.

For some it’s been great; for others not so much.

In a survey conducted by Dimensional Research and Cisco Webex (October 2020), in addition to greater adoption of the hybrid workplace, 99% of companies plan to enact changes to their physical workplace such as, adding more private cubicles and dividers, rotating in-office attendance, and implementing strict sanitation requirements.

These physical changes to the work office will help ease the stress and anxiety of some employees, but a year plus into this pandemic and the work-from-home situation has many people feeling worried about this next phase.

 

Will I lose my current work-life balance?

How will it feel to work alongside my colleagues again?

I am more productive at home. Why do I need to go back?

I am not ready to leave the safety of my home bubble.

I do not like change.

 

Implementing physical regulations to manage social distancing is clearly an easier task than managing employee fears and concerns. Like other business sectors, the contact center industry is faced with similar workforce management challenges though significantly heightened considering high agent attrition and burnout rates. Let’s face it, being an agent is not always a pleasant or rewarding job – even on a good day. Now add to that back to the office stress, and you’ve got a workforce in turmoil.

 

Burnt. Anxious. Stress. The Millennial Generation.

Before we delve deeper into current return to work anxieties, let’s take a step back to address a workforce already plagued by stress pre-pandemic.

You know them well. They are the millennials.

In Anne Helen Petersen’s viral article, How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation, she describes what it’s like growing up in an uncertain, rapidly evolving world, juggling many low-paying jobs despite having higher education. Not a singular story, but a reflection of a wider peer group leading to a generation of stressed and burnout employees, with little to no sympathy emanating from older generations.

 

“It’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.” – BuzzFeed

And why is this important? The world’s population is ageing. As Baby Boomers enter retirement and Gen Xers take over senior management positions, millennials account for over one-third of the US labour force.

These employees born from 1981 to 1996, are today’s core workforce. Understanding their struggles and reality will give you greater insight as to how you can help them achieve on-the-job success.

But of course, chronic stress or burnout is not exclusive to millennials.

In a Gallup survey, 76 percent of people experience burnout sometimes, while 21 percent experience burnout very often. How sad that chronic stress and burnout have become our new way of living! Add to that everything pandemic-related and your employees have even more reasons to feel stressed, anxious and burnout – constantly changing requirements, health-related fears, job insecurities, etc.

Whether generational or pandemic-related, stress is not conducive to a productive contact center that consistently delivers exceptional customer experiences. Contact center agents (and other professionals) can experience chronic stress when faced with unclear goals and expectations, poor customer interaction tools, insufficient training, lackluster management support and other workplace factors.

Sadly, call center burnout is a workplace reality and a huge industry problem.

As a manager or supervisor of contact center agents, your role above all else is to ensure that your employees feel safe and secure in their workplace. So, what can managers do to ease their employees’ fears of returning to the office?

 

Employ Workforce Engagement Practices to Alleviate Stress

 Around the world, we were suddenly and immediately forced into lockdown or work-from-home in March of 2020. It caused a lot of stress and worry. Companies scrambled to make decisions to keep operations going. Employees feared for their jobs and the safety of their families.

But then we adapted. We found our groove.

For many, it opened a door to greater work-life balance. No long commutes. Less time spent travelling, meant more time spent with family. Many saw greater financial savings as a result of not having to go to a physical workplace 5 days a week.

The downside? Customer interaction volumes spiked dramatically as most, if not all customer services moved from physical to digital. Coupled with a rise in customer anxiety, agent stress equally escalated.

Again, we found a balance and worked through this uncertain period to come to a more level and stable ground. So, many agents are now wondering, why do we need to go back?

 

Here are some ways you can help ease return to the office anxiety:

1. Consistent employee communications

With personal and professional changes affecting employees almost daily, providing your agents with an open and clear line of communication – a place for them to vet their fears and concerns before they fester and escalate into stressful situations and eventual burnout – is critical. Depending on your specific situation, this can take place in different ways:

1. One-to-one “open door” policy with a supervisor

2. Community peer group that regularly checks in on their employee group

3. HR specific in-person or virtual counselling services

 

With a safe and supportive environment, your employees will have a place to help them express concerns and relieve potential stressors. But as a manager, you also need to implement clear, concise and consistent communication. What does this mean?

Employees need to hear from you, often – especially during times of change or crisis. You may have already instilled greater communication policies for your work-from-home employees. Now that they are bound back into the office is no time to stop communicating! Whether in the form of a weekly call or email update, monthly newsletter, etc. your staff needs to know that you will be updating them with need-to-know information that affects them. And by scheduling a specific date or time in the week where they can expect to obtain this information, employees may feel more reassured and less stressed as the return to office begins or work from home continues.

 

2. Motivate and support your agents

We all know that happy agents equal happy customers. Then why do most companies remain laser-focused on customer satisfaction without addressing the agent component? During this pandemic, supporting the customer became paramount. But as the number of customer calls and interactions dramatically escalated, so did agent stress and anxiety. Remember, they too were affected by the pandemic and faced their own personal fears. And yet, their work-life became increasingly more hectic.

With consistent workforce engagement strategies in place, companies that understood the balance and relationship between agent and customer, set in place additional support measures and employee care programs to ensure that their staff could weather the uptick in customer interactions across channels, maintaining business continuity.

Plus, when your employees feel motivated and supported, there can be a resulting greater long-term improvement in employee engagement, agent attrition, performance and productivity – not to mention a greater commitment and loyalty – which all have measurable financial advantages for the company.

 

3. Workforce Management (WFM) and Optimization (WFO)

While we have spent more than a minute understanding generational stress, pandemic-related stress and how managers can alleviate stressors through improved people-to-people management, there are software solutions that can be employed that help reduce agent on-the-job stress.

Workforce management software fully integrated within the contact center is often seen as a productivity tool capable of keeping track of agent performance and providing managers with features that optimize productivity. While true, workforce management (WFM) software also enables workforce satisfaction. With automated and optimal staffing and scheduling based on historical data and intelligent forecasting, managers can plan staffing requirements ensuring that the right number of agents are in place with the right skills to respond to customer requests. For agents, this means working in a more stable environment with a steady pace of interactions – without an overwhelming amount of customer interactions that strain and stress agents.

When combined with performance and quality management, agents benefit from additional training, benchmarks and personal targets that make achieving goals and on-the-job satisfaction optimal.

Therefore, when WFM and WFO tools are used to optimally schedule employees and metrics collected on performance and productivity are used to provide feedback, training and other improvements, agents gain a stable and more reliable work environment that they enjoy.

 

Uncompromising Focus on Agent Satisfaction

Whether or not you plan on returning to the office, adopting a hybrid approach to continuing the work-from-home model, addressing employee stress and anxieties during this pandemic is key to ensuring employee satisfaction. As everyone remains hyper-focused on the customer experience, let’s remember that employee retention, employee engagement and employee satisfaction are paramount to the customer experience. With companies across North America struggling to hire quality candidates, it makes financial and business sense to keep your employees happy by addressing their fears and concerns before they escalate into serious challenges. In fact, during this pandemic, optimally managing employee stress may become your secret competitive advantage. No worries – we won’t tell a soul!

As the world slowly gets back to “normal” and you may be recalling your employees back to the office, it is vital that you seriously address the stress and anxieties that some employees may face. These are real fears that can negatively impact operations. Having a plan, sharing that plan, and constantly communicating with your staff will help ease anxieties and keep your operations running smoothly.

 

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