The Future of Work - how to execute a mindful return to the workplace

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett May 3, 2021 Audio mode
The concept of mindfulness has been around in corporate life for over a decade now. But could it be prove to be the answer in helping to smooth employees’ transition back to work post-lockdown?


There is no doubt about the level of anxiety many employees feel over returning to the office as lockdowns in many parts of the world begin to ease, with concerns ranging from possible infection by others, either on public transport or in the workplace, to how safe their job is likely to be moving into the future.

But this difficult situation is not good for either people’s mental or emotional health, points out Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology & Health at the University of Manchester’s Alliance Manchester Business School and President of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development:

There are two things that cause people to get ill from stress, anxiety and depression, and that’s uncertainty and lack of control – and going back into the office is linked to both of those. There’s uncertainty about how the office will look and how colleagues will behave, and individuals have no control over that. It’ll settle down once they see the reality: that there are good precautions in place and trains aren’t as crowded as they were because no one’s doing nine to five all the time. But it’ll take a while.

As employee wellbeing continues to rise up the executive agenda though, tools that were once seen as wild and wacky are starting to become more widely accepted. One of these is the concept of ‘mindfulness’.

Before being secularised and turned into a self-help tool, ‘mindfulness’ was actually just one element of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. In its current streamlined manifestation though, it is used is to help people become more present in the moment rather than dwell on the past or worry about the future in order to help reduce their stress levels and build more self-awareness and resilience.

Adopting this approach in a workplace context, believes Fiona McKinnon, co-founder of the Moment Co, which offers wellbeing solutions for people suffering from stress and anxiety, enables employees to:

Become 100% focused on whatever they’re doing at the time without distraction or judgement. So it’s less about people sitting there for 20 minutes meditating and more about bringing the approach into their day-to-day life. Regular mindful awareness leads to better decision-making as you’re acting rather than reacting. It creates space to enable clarity of mind so people can be more creative and productive, and it makes them more mindful of the language they use, which also helps with workplace communication and interaction with colleagues.

Mindfulness in tech

Companies in the tech space that have incorporated mindfulness practices into their cultures in a bid to support employee productivity and wellbeing more effectively include Salesforce, Google and Apple. To this end, staff are provided with everything from mindfulness coaching programmes to mindfulness spaces and meditation breaks. Terri Moloney, Senior Director of Employee Success at Salesforce, explains the rationale:

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment so you can figure out where you are. As a result, in the office, we have mindfulness zones, quiet spaces and private rooms, which are quiet and relaxing so people can take a few minutes away and chill out after a long morning or a difficult call. We also encourage people to go for a walk in nature or take a phone call outside rather than spend all their time in front of a camera.

Another means of ensuring that everyone is “fully present and ready” for meetings is to start with a grounding exercise. As Moloney says:

When we’re together, we want to be present together as when we’re present together we’re more productive. So we start with a grounding exercise. There are apps we can use, such as putting Headspace on the big screen, or if there’s a big team meeting, we’ll ask someone who’s good at it to open the meeting and set us up for success. It really does help – it brings people into the present, makes them mindful of our objectives and what we want to achieve and acts as a signal to leave things outside the room that we don’t need.

Other simple techniques include taking three deep breaths when agitated to reset the nervous system or simply looking up and away from the computer screen if feeling overwhelmed as, according to McKinnon, doing so:

Triggers alpha brainwaves, which puts you in a more creative space and moves your focus to something else rather than your negative state – it’s important as this is about breaking the cycle of state. Even just looking at the back of your hand is enough to create space in the brain. It’s like holding down ‘control, alt delete’ to reset your system and it takes as little as 30 seconds to create a little opportunity for change.

Embedding mindfulness in wellness strategies

But she advises that mindfulness as an approach is “neither a silver bullet nor a magic pill for wellbeing” and, to be effective, needs to be embedded “at the heart” of a wider wellbeing strategy. McKinnon explains:

Mindfulness has to flow through your values and how you behave and interact with others. So in a return-to-work context, for example, it’s important to ask what does wellbeing look like now, how does it support people’s preferences and how we can enable them to create the best environment possible?

In a similar fashion to Salesforce, the Moment Co starts meetings with a check-in and breathing exercise “to set the tone and make us feel safe and in the here and now”. People are encouraged to have a break between meetings and to step away from their desks to “help them become more present’.

Also valuable is the company-wide check-in at the start and end of the week, which begins with a breathing and visualisation exercise. McKinnon explains why it is considered important:

It creates a distinction between work and rest, and so we talk about the ‘transition’. It helps you let go ready for the weekend and then energises you again on Monday morning - and it only takes five minutes.

Another important consideration is the use of “mindful language”. This means being thoughtful about how company value and mission statements are expressed but also about how everyday activities, such as employee appraisals, are communicated. However, as McKinnon points out, it is not necessarily either useful or appropriate to use the term ‘mindfulness’ when discussing such ideas with employees, not least as it can be offputting for some.

The importance of line managers

But Cooper is not convinced that mindfulness in and of itself will be enough to support the workforce effectively as it returns to the office, whether under a hybrid model or on a full-time basis. Instead he recommends conducting wellbeing audits to take the workforce’s emotional temperature and to communicate clearly about how the new world of work will operate.

Key to this approach, he believes, is “treating people as individuals”, which includes discussing with them how they feel about their return. It also involves line managers working with their teams to decide important issues, such as which days will be spent in the office and which elsewhere. Cooper explains the rationale:

It’s about how you manage humans that make them happy and if you do that, everything else falls into place. But the big issue the pandemic has raised is ‘do we have enough emotionally intelligent managers from the shop floor to the top floor? Pre-COVID, managers were mostly hired based on their technical rather than their people skills, but many HR directors and chief medical officers are now worried they don’t have the right people in place to cope with employees suffering from anxiety and wanting to work more flexibly. They know that hybrid working is going to require a different kind of manager and they’re not sure they’re up to scratch.

As a result, Cooper recommends that organizations undertake an internal audit to assess their line managers’ ability. What they are likely to find, he says, is that about 25% have natural people management skills.

Between 45-50% would benefit from some training to enhance their emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, while between 10-15% “shouldn’t be let near other people and can’t be trained”. Instead they should be transferred to a role that plays to the technical strengths that led to them being promoted in the first place. As Cooper concludes:

People usually get promotion because they’re good at their job, but that doesn’t make them a good leader or people manager. But if another parallel tier was created, you could have them playing to their strengths. A rethink would be required, but change is going to be necessary as we’re moving into a new world anyway.

My take

While mindfulness as an approach is valuable in helping create a supportive culture and environment, particularly when many employees are feeling anxious and stressed about both their personal and work life situation, the role of the line manager should not, as ever, be underestimated in terms of its importance in smoothing their transition back to the workplace.

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