Main content

Anxious about returning to the office? You’re not alone.


As the end of the pandemic begins, a return to the office looms for many.

Some are excited. Some are nervous. Some have no idea what to expect.

And that range goes for everyone: from leadership to HR to employees.

So of course, questions abound. Luckily, Jia (Jasmine) Hu has answers.

Hu, an associate professor of management at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business, specializes in researching leadership and team cultures. She recently spoke about the mindsets people have as they return to the office in the months ahead, and how everyone can approach it in a proactive and positive way.

What stressors lurk for leaders, employers and employees as they return to the office?

Leaders and employees may feel psychologically distant from each other and emotionally anxious. Employees may feel unsure about whether or not they are still valuable components of their companies and whether or not they can still make the contributions they did before the pandemic.

Also, given that the next phases of the pandemic are still surging, employees may still have a lot of uncertainties that cause psychological distress.

Another important factor is a lot of employees are trying to balance work and life. They may feel burned out, overworked and stressed. And they may be concerned about whether or not going back to the office can increase their work and family conflicts.

According to Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey conducted in March 2021, among 2,000 employed adults from the United States and Canada they surveyed, 26% of those workers planned to leave their employers after the pandemic mainly because they’re concerned with their career advancement for reasons we mentioned: They’re not sure they’re a valuable contributor anymore and that their company will provide opportunities to grow and advance.

Also a lot of them are concerned about whether or not their employers will offer long-term remote work options.

So what can managers or leadership do to help ease the return to the office?

It is critical for leaders to pay attention to employees’ emotional needs and unite them behind a common purpose.

In my own research, we used data found mostly in the United States and China when COVID-19 cases were surging. We found that “servant” leadership — which exemplifies behaviors such as paying attention to employees’ emotional suffering, empowering them and guiding them to serve their communities — helps reduce anxiety and increase job engagement.

When leaders are servant-oriented, they’re more likely to acknowledge their own worries and uncertainties. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, everything’s under control,’ they say ‘I feel the same; I’m anxious too but let’s work through it together.’

When leadership cares about their employees’ well-being, the employees are more likely to feel they are valuable contributors, and they’re more willing to invest themselves in their work roles.

Leaders also can provide additional resources, autonomy and transition time for their employees to navigate the situation. This will increase a sense of control, and that can help reduce anxiety, which can have a positive impact on employees’ job engagement and performance.

What can employees do to prepare to return to the office?

Employees need to realize anxiety is normal. Something I really like is Stephen Covey’s 90/10 principal. He said 10% of life is what happens to you and 90% is decided by how you react. Employees need to have confidence they can make as valuable a contribution to their workplace as they did before the pandemic.

Another important thing is that two-way communication is the key. Instead of anxiously waiting for the employer to tell them what is going to happen, they can be proactive in their communication with their leaders and ask for help and additional resources.

The third point would be to seek out support from co-workers. Research shows when employees have emotional support and resources from co-workers, they’re more likely to be engaged at work.

Should businesses consider a phased-in or flexible return to the office?

If leaders and companies can provide flexibility, it would be really helpful to give employees that sense of control and autonomy. But it’s important for businesses to evaluate their own cases individually. They need to evaluate their businesses’ long-term survival while considering the well-being of their employees.

They can reach out to their employees to consider their specific lives and their emotional situations. They can conduct an anonymous survey to ask employees whether they’re willing to come back completely or prefer remote work or a hybrid situation.

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 52% of Americans would choose to work from home permanently given the option. So it’s important business owners know what employees want and evaluate what will make their business work. There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy.