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How to Support Employees Returning to the Office

Organizational management expert offers insight on how employers can help employees transition back to in-person work

A man wearing a face mask in an office.

​Employers across the country are developing return-to-the-workplace plans that focus on office space, scheduling and safety. But employees' emotional and psychological health should also be considered, as managing re-entry anxiety will be critical to returning to pre-pandemic productivity and engagement levels. Victoria Grady

Victoria Grady, an associate professor of management and organizational behavior in the School of Business at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., discussed with SHRM Online how employers can support their returning workers by understanding how to help them manage change.

SHRM Online: What are transitional objects?

Grady: It's a new topic in the context of organizational behavior or change management. The concept comes from work in developmental psychology, particularly the work of D.W. Winnicott. He talked about transitional objects being used to help children transition through different periods of their lives. These objects—whether they take the form of a physical item like a security blanket or something more abstract like a routine, habit or action—provide the necessary grounding to help us navigate uncertainty.

That was its origin, but we've found that it's not just children that need to feel supported as they move through change, and in the workplace we're definitely seeing the need for support as employees transition through the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What we're talking about is that space between the old and comfortable and the new unknown, whether that's using a new technology, introducing a new business process or returning to the office from working remotely. As workplaces move toward a new normal and make the transition from the current state to a future state—one that is still incredibly uncertain and has undefined boundaries—leaders can deliberately identify and integrate transitional objects for support. Transitional objects for returning workers can either be tangible, such as a gift of appreciation left for them at their desks, or something less concrete but more impactful, such as allowing employees to choose where and how to work.

SHRM Online: In your work on transition, you talk about giving people a choice, making a connection to purpose and establishing a bridge to a desired future. Let's talk about these, starting with choice.

Grady: The literature around a neuroscience concept called neuroplasticity confirms that, in fact, our brains can be reconfigured—they are malleable throughout our lives. This means that, in times of change, people can let go of old norms and embrace new ones. This isn't always easy, but research shows change is more palatable if people feel like they're an active part of making decisions throughout it. If you give people the ability to have input, buy-in and power over the change, they tend to embrace that change with a lot more willingness and commitment than those without that input.

In organizations, this could look like giving employees a choice of where and how to work. Google allowing their returning employees to choose which days they want to be in the office versus at home is a good example. Hybrid, flexible work plans could become the new norm.

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SHRM Online: How about mission-focused connection?

Grady: We have found a connection to something shared—a mission, purpose or guiding star— allows people to focus on something bigger than the momentary pain of transition and uncertainty. It reminds me of the often-told story of the NASA janitor who, when asked by President Kennedy during a visit, "What are you doing?" responded, "I am helping to put a man on the moon."

Our research team has performed a multiyear analysis of federal agency metrics related to productivity, engagement, leadership and job satisfaction. The study revealed that those agencies with a deep connection to mission scored consistently higher in all performance metrics than those agencies who had little or no reliable connection to mission.

To do challenging things, and to do them over time, all employees need to know how what they're doing supports a bigger goal. Especially as we shift to a hybrid format with a distributed workforce, connecting back to the purpose of the organization is very important for it to prosper, perform well and be productive in the new normal. There has been a lot of disconnect during this pandemic, and that connection to sense of purpose needs to be reinvigorated.

SHRM Online: And establishing a bridge?

Grady: Technology has been an incredible bridge during the past 15 months. But establishing a bridge does not only refer to technology. I think that organizations need to look at other ways to create bridges. A bridge can be symbolic or a tangible representation and as simple as an orange frog. This example, based on a parable composed by positive psychology speaker Shawn Achor, is about an orange frog who embraces its positivity amid a sea of negative frogs.

The basic idea is that, even on dark days, there is probably at least one bright spot to focus on. This bright spot can help serve as a transitional object to get you and your employees from one day to the next amidst challenging circumstances. The frog is a reminder. It could be a purple elephant, it can be a coin or medallion that the CEO gives to everyone, it can be anything. It should remind people that we are all in this together, and that the bridge is positive and future focused.

SHRM Online: A lot has been said about organizational resilience this past year. What have you found in your research about how employers have managed being resilient, and how prepared are they to continue managing resilience?

Grady: I'd say it looks like a bell curve. And we're in the valley of that curve right now. I think employers did a really good job initially trying to manage resilience, but people are tired after 15 months. So we're in a dip to successfully manage resilience right now but it's the perfect time to hit that inflection point and pop back up as we bring employees back. And it's something we all need to be focused on—leaders, managers, supervisors—how can we recharge back up to help employees manage through this new workplace normal?

I think we all need to step back at this moment of returning to the office and consider transitional objects to re-energize resiliency. If we're not intentional about it, we will bring back sluggish employees, dragging them forward, and lacking the productivity and performance that we're hoping to recapture.


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