Six weeks after the earthquake of COVID-19 abruptly relocated millions of workers to their homes, we are on the cusp of yet another shift – a return to the office. And while this phase will be more gradual in nature, leaders should not under-estimate the accompanying stress, confusion, and ambiguity that will likely ensue. For leaders and managers, this is a key moment where listening, empathy, and flexibility are essential skills to successfully guiding your people through their re-entry back to the office.
What are the top concerns your people will have about transitioning back? An easy way to find out is to schedule one-on-ones and ask. One area will likely be safety measures: Will our organization be testing for COVID-19 on-site? What are the protective covering rules? How will office space be reconfigured to promote safe distancing? What expectations will be set regarding social gatherings – lunch or the water cooler?
In our conversations with clients, shifts in responsibility are also top of mind. How has my role changed, especially if furloughs and layoffs have taken place? Then there is the elephant in the room – “Can I choose to work from home?” While exhausted parents are looking forward to decamping their office/play-pen/living rooms, many others have enjoyed the fruits of not commuting, having greater flexibility around their personal schedule, and working free from the distractions of everyday office life. Can your employees now choose where they work? If not, why not? Before COVID-19 “your role requires you to be at the office” carried weight. Now, not as much. Be prepared to thoroughly communicate the company’s rationale in either direction.
Meanwhile, executives around the country are pleasantly surprised that productivity has improved during this period. The idea that work ethic suffers when working from home has been debunked – as many studies over the last 10 years had already indicated. Huge savings on travel and real estate costs have also not gone unnoticed. As a result, many organizations are preparing for a hybrid workplace where some teams return to the office while others stay at home. This will create contrasting communication dynamics, as remote teams function best with a-synchronous communication, meaning less meetings and extensive documentation, and rigorous decision making, whereas in-office teams prioritize in-sync, real time collaboration, (more meetings), that enable rapid decision making. Harmonizing these two approaches will present both significant challenges and opportunities going forward.
Prior to this crisis, maximizing talent focused on a team member’s work ethic, coachability, accountability, and their ability to work well with others. Our collective COVID experience has added a significant consideration and requires us to ask, “has this person or team been more or less productive working from home?” Figuring that out and tailoring your approach going forward will require extra reserves of patience, listening, and thoughtful flexibility. However, your personal investment to understand each employee’s unique value will deepen trust, uncover new potential, and strengthen relationships long after COVID-19 has passed.
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