How leaders can help their teams return to work well after COVID-19

We have another wave of change heading our way.  Just when we’ve adapted to a world of lockdown, of finding ways to work and connect and juggle the myriad of pulls of home and work life in one location, we are emerging.  There’s a rising pressure to get back to normal and many of us are being asked to consider going back to the office either part or full time.

Have we paused to consider what that will be like after several months of withdrawing from contact?  We may be returning to the same office, and it would be easy to assume that the transition will be straightforward.  It might take a few days, and then we can carry on as normal (albeit with some changes in working practices to take care of social distancing). And let’s face it THIS ISN’T NORMAL.  So much has changed.

I think it will be much harder and more of a shock than we anticipate.  Recently when venturing into a large open space where about 100 people were picnicking in small, socially distanced groups, I noticed how watchful I was – it felt strange.  Others have echoed this sense of discomfort and even feelings of anxiety when encountering larger groups of people for the first time in weeks.  It’s a feeling of not knowing whether you are safe.  Something that so many of us took for granted before Covid-19 arrived.

I am also reminded of my experience years ago in managing international secondments.  Much care and support was offered to help individuals and their families settle and integrate when moving to a new country.  Little thought was given to helping them to return to their home country.  After all they knew how it all worked didn’t they?  I saw how that experience of feeling unsupported (even abandoned) undermined confidence, morale and commitment for those highly talented people we so wanted to retain.

We all crave a sense of safety and belonging – knowing that we are OK and feeling that we matter and are included.  As we return to different ways of working, the deal and the implicit rules of how we belong may well have changed.  For example, imagine walking back into the office and feeling strange not shaking hands.  What if others take less care over social distancing than you – will you risk feeling like an outsider or being difficult because you seem to be taking this too seriously?

So how do you help people to return well and be productive when so much is shifting and uncertain? Robert Holden once said, “leaders create the weather”.  Surely now it’s important to focus even more attention on creating the conditions for people to thrive and feel able to engage in their work?

There’s a risk that we just “crack on with it” with a kind of bravado. After all, it will be fine. All we need to do is pull ourselves together, push through and focus on getting stuff done.  Taking action might give a sense of reassurance, and it won’t address underlying concerns.  And if you don’t address them, in my experience that’s a high-speed route to stress and burnout.

Three words come to mind.  Kindness, support and understanding – even if things are tough. Nice words, but how do you do that? Here are three thoughts:

  1. Acknowledge that this IS a big change: Feelings of uncertainty and discomfort are normal.  When we do that, we are more likely to listen and be curious rather than making quick judgements about people and their actions.
  2. Provide containment: ensure clarity on what is known and clear, outline explicitly agreed and discussed expectations. 
  3. Create connection: a sense of being part of creating something – now and for the future.

Jacinda Ardern’s approach in New Zealand modelled this (watch her facebook video to see how it’s done)

A client described her approach as “kind, firm and clear”. Her clear, down to earth personal style of communication gave people a sense of comfort and as much clarity as was possible in the chaos.

David Rock’s SCARF model based on the finding of neuroscience is a simple and powerful frame. When we experience threats to our Status, level of Certainty, sense of Autonomy, feeling of Relatedness and Fairness this triggers the threat response (which means we think less well – definitely no good for performance and productivity!).   And I don’t know about you, but I notice challenges to my sense of certainty and relatedness every day. 

William Bridges work on transitions says that in times of change, people need 

  • Structure (clarity of roles, responsibilities, expectations, how we get things done, our norms)
  • Information (what we do/ don’t know, why, when we will know more)
  • Support (understanding that this could be an emotional rollercoaster at times, and we may all react in different ways).

Your team members may be asking themselves (some will ask you but not all) ‘What does the future hold?’  ‘Will I have a job?’ ‘How to we meet and work together now?’ ‘Can I flex my working patterns and blend virtual and office working?’

So what could you do to support well being and improve focus and productivity?

  • Clear, frequent, personal communication – sharing what is known and unknown and being available for conversation and questions.  This helps build a sense of safety and connection that we all crave. 
  • Not guessing how people are – asking them (not on email!) prompting for the real answer beyond the cursory “fine” and genuinely listening.  When it comes to feelings and reactions sometimes, it’s enough to be heard.  You don’t need to fix it.
  • Balancing focus on task and delivery with a focus on relationship and belonging.  Make time for informal chats and conversations to explore how to work together and support each other.  Asking about their concerns and inviting ideas for how we can create a sense of wellbeing so that we are able to do our best work.

If you like this – please share it. I would love to hear your reactions, additions, and ideas.

Please contact me for an exploratory discussion.