One report tells us that everyone is desperate to get back to the office, and another survey tells us that actually…no we aren’t – it’s no surprise that businesses are struggling to plan for their people’s futures when they have no idea what lies in store. But one thing we’d like leaders to prepare for is tension in the workplace.

After over a year of limited resources, endless virtual meetings, and feelings of isolation, the first day back at the office may feel like the first day back at school.  Everyone looking smarter than we’ve seen them in months, maybe packing new stationery into new bags and shining our shoes (or at least wiping down our sneakers) in anticipation of seeing our colleagues in real life again.  Being able to talk to acquaintances in private rather than in virtual meetings and finding out what’s happened in their lives over the time apart.  There’s no doubt it will be exciting, but how long will the novelty last?

Suddenly, people won’t be able to work from their sofas at their own pace in whatever clothes are clean. Instead they will be back to suffering a daily commute, or to being judged for how much coffee they drink, or how many breaks they take – it will take a lot for people to adjust to a workplace again, and we need to be prepared.

Arguments and conflicts over petty misdemeanours in the kitchen, or use of office resources may come up more than usual.  People may forget what is correct office etiquette again, and insult others accidently with cheeky humour or off-hand comments.  Coping mechanisms for dealing with these small incidents will be forgotten or out of practice, and tolerances that had built up over time will need to be started from scratch.

So while leaders may be excited about being able to ‘properly’ manage their people again, and relishing the chance to interact, they need to be prepared for these new problems that will arise, just as they did at the start of remote working. For organisations ready to embrace a hybrid model, it is imperative that leaders have a plan in place for supporting employees who are all working in different ways and requiring different things each day.

But where do you begin?  Well we find the best place to start is to think of your employees as adults…no, really.  Speak to them now, initiate some open dialogue and find out what their concerns and fears are.  Let them know your expectations around their return to the office, and ensure everyone starts from day one on the same page.

Offer one-to-one support for your direct reports and ensure they do the same for their own teams if necessary.  Being mindful of our own worries and respectful of the concerns of those around you will be key to getting your workplace back on track.

The truth is, you won’t know what the problems will be until you are back and in the thick of it, so don’t make any big changes or rash decisions now. Instead, give everyone time to settle, observe the problems that arise and then you can start making plans for how to deal with them.