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Return Strategies Must Prioritize Mental Health and Resilience

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our workplaces won’t be the same when we return. That’s a truth we have to accept and embrace. But there’s another truth which is seldom mentioned: we won’t be the same, either.

In many ways, going back to the office will not be like flipping a switch. Our lives — and our understanding of ourselves as parts of an interconnected whole — have changed irrevocably. The pandemic is taking a serious emotional toll by itself, and the country’s ongoing protests have pulled back the curtain on how trauma falls unevenly throughout our society. Employers need to take this new collective understanding into consideration as they communicate and plan for the future. They need to communicate with empathy and develop strategies that put mental health in lockstep with physical health and safety. In other words, they need to support and promote resilience.

“Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress […] As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.”American Psychological Association

We are collectively learning what it means to be resilient, both as business entities and as individuals. In recent weeks, we have engaged with many clients who are considering change management and organization development services for the first time because their employees are facing unprecedented amounts of stress. As organizations all over the world resume activities, their employees and guests are carrying an emotional weight. Research from Express Scripts revealed a 21% increase in antidepressant, antianxiety, and anti-insomnia medication prescriptions between February and March. The week that COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, 78% of all prescriptions filled for these conditions were new prescriptions.

Questions from employees cover a wide range of topics, from practical safety concerns about being physically together to concerns about being marginalized if they prefer to remain working from home.

COVID-19 task forces have been formed within our client organizations unifying HR, Facilities, Technology, Operations, and Finance disciplines in unprecedented ways. Together, we are building resilience plans not only for the corporate entity, but as importantly, for the individuals that are the heart and soul of organizations.

Here are some strategies that help build resilience and cut through the noise:

1. Use inclusive and adaptable processes. To fully understand which concerns are most pressing for your employees, ask them. Using a variety of feedback channels collects the widest range of perspectives and detailed comments. Surveys, virtual focus groups, workshops, and forums are all valuable venues that demonstrate a commitment to understanding employee needs. Such tools also help to call out which policy changes make people feel most comfortable. Gensler’s 2020 Work From Home survey, for example, focuses on comfort and other questions relating to employee preferences, and identifies a clear demand for stricter policies against coming in to work sick, increased opportunities that give people the choice to work from home, and increased distance between workstations.

It is important not just to engage, but to truly listen and follow through. Take steps to clearly demonstrate how the feedback is influencing strategies for the future. The high level of uncertainty and rapid flow of new information may require more frequent engagements. We have seen clients shift change management communications from longer monthly meetings to shorter weekly check-ins. To help facilitate these conversations, Gensler has also created an employee experience survey that specifically addresses the current state while working from home as well as expectations for the return to the office. Outcomes can be directly connected to return to office decision making and strategies.

2. Choose your words carefully. The words we use to communicate formally as well as informally are extremely important, especially during stressful times. This extends to our internal dialogue too, as we strive to stay optimistic and hopeful despite an overwhelming deluge of negative information. The five core principles of Appreciative Inquiry provide a helpful guide for communications, beginning with the adage “words create worlds” which acknowledges that perceptions begin forming as soon as words are uttered. Not only do our words matter, but the questions we ask often begin our journey of thought. Often a simple tweak of a question, using phrasing like “how might we,” can generate positive outlooks, strengths, or benefits that were previously hidden.

3. Cultivate a sense of purpose. As we have adjusted to working from home without the benefit of physical colocation with our colleagues, the need for purpose has been elevated. We all crave a sense of belonging and an understanding of how our individual efforts contribute to a greater whole. Reinforcing company mission is essential to keep employees focused despite external distractions, and may actually be a welcomed avenue for thinking about things other than the global pandemic. Whatever that mission may be, keeping it at the forefront of communications and interactions helps bring focus to the “why” of everyday tasks and provides a positive spotlight on more normal activities. Taking it a step further, connecting that purpose to the current pandemic by sharing stories about how your organization is helping people will highlight those smaller individual contributions in a greater context.

4. Overcommunicate, even if there isn’t a solid plan to be communicated yet. Simply knowing where your organization is in the return to office process can help put employees’ minds at rest. Practicing transparency, including different voices, and sharing questions you are asking or struggles you have allow for a sense of humanity and vulnerability to emerge that is rooted in empathy, honesty, and care. In these uncharted times, being upfront about what you know and what you don’t know can go a long way, as long as you are clear about the process and the steps you are taking to get to the right answers for your organization.

5. Plant seeds of hope. The connection between positive emotions — especially hope — and our physical health is well documented. We often witness a momentum take hold where hope begets hope, and each tiny glimmer can have a sizable ripple effect as things shift and evolve. In the early weeks of working from home, Gensler’s US staff found hope in the stories and photos from our Chinese colleagues as they returned to the office. While statistics and data are important, there is nothing like a personal story to provide a realistic glimpse into a possible future. The unknown can be a scary place, but hearing from those who are navigating the new normal has planted seeds of hope and even humor as we continue to build resilience. Look for stories of hope within your own teams and share broadly to ease transitions during these uncertain times.

This moment in history provides an unprecedented occasion for radical change instead of the incremental change to which we’ve grown accustomed. As such, we should jump at the opportunity to reconsider how corporate culture, processes, and priorities affect our wellbeing. We have a pressing need to prioritize mental health and resilience right now, but directing more attention to these issues is an evolution which is long overdue. There will be no easy fix for the emotional disruption of this crisis, but we can develop change strategies that take such concerns seriously and make a real difference. If we do that, we have a chance to look back on these difficult days and be glad we took steps to make us all stronger in the long run.

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Elaine Asal
Elaine is a strategy director and regional practice area leader for Gensler’s Southeast region. She works across the private, public, and non-profit sectors with a focus on equitable development, inclusive engagement, visioning, and strategic planning. Elaine is based in Baltimore. Contact her at .