There’s a bit of a tempest brewing regarding a post-COVID return to the office, and employers can do six things to make sure that the tempest remains in a teacup, as one consultant advises.
Published survey results show a gap in some cases between what employees expect in terms of a flexible post-COVID workplace, and what their bosses are prepared to provide.
Ron Carucci is the co-founder and managing partner at Atlanta-based Navalent, a consultancy in organizational and leadership development. In a recent blog for Harvard Business Review, he observes that employers will play a pivotal role in supporting their workers as the transition back to the office looms.
More than 60% of the Canadian population has already received at least one dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine, recent data from the federal government shows. And with some provinces like Ontario and Quebec nearing (or at) three-quarters of the adult population with one dose, companies are seriously thinking about what the in-person return to the office will look like.
A general consensus is that “most employees don’t want to return to whatever normal looked like pre-pandemic,” Carucci wrote in How to Lead Your Team Through the Transition Back to the Office, published Wednesday in Harvard Business Review. But the “more [control] employees have over their work structure, the less resistance they’ll feel to the transition.”
Carucci spells out six ways that business leaders in the P&C and other industries can help keep their team motivated and engaged during the transition back to the office.
1. Be transparent without being a victim
If the level of flexibility you’re able to offer employees doesn’t match their expectations, listen to their concerns and disappointment with empathy. Be as transparent as you can about the organization’s reasoning behind the policies being put in place. Never respond with something like, “Sorry, but it’s out of my control.” That signals helplessness and defensiveness, and that will likely rile your employees further.
Proactively alert the team to impending changes about which you have heard. Let others know how you are staying informed on their behalf. “By effectively managing others’ expectations, you help ensure they don’t become obstacles to an already complicated transition,” Carucci said.
2. Involve the team in balancing individual and group needs
Have each person express their needs and preferences. Within the bounds of what’s allowed, charge the team with working out how to balance them.
For example, single parents will have different needs for flexibility than those caring for aging parents. “People will be inclined to be more flexible, even sacrificial, for the sake of the team when it’s their choice to do so.”
Encourage the team to create new work practices to which everyone will adhere; these will address both where and when work will happen. They could include such things as ensuring that all meetings include video links so those working from home can participate equally. Or they might set defined work hours, like 11 a.m.–2 p.m., when everyone must be available online; conversely, they could also set weekend boundaries, when everyone is expected to be offline.
3. Allow people space to grieve
Allow people space to grieve the loss of whatever this past season has meant for them, Carucci recommended. For some, family members lost loved ones to COVID-19. For others, they may have discovered a newfound closeness with their children.
“Grief may take on many forms. Some may be unusually quiet; others a bit terse. Some may be suddenly teary after a colleague mentions their family,” Carucci wrote in the blog. “If you create the space for people to let go of what this last 18 months has been, you’ll enable them to more fully embrace the next normal you’re inviting them to help create.”
4. Don’t burden the team with ambivalence
Like everyone, leaders have mixed feelings about going back to the office. While being vulnerable with your team about personal difficulties may build deeper connection, take care not to overdo it.
If you need a safe haven to vent, consider engaging a coach or close confidant. “But for your team’s sake, remember that they’re following your example.”
5. Consolidate pandemic stories together
By sharing aspects of the past year-and-a-half that your team experienced while separated, you’ll help them see each other in a fresh light. “None of us will return the same as we were 18 months ago,” Carucci said. “Creating a special experience to discover who you each became will rekindle your team bonds while refreshing your sense of newness about what’s to come.”
This past year-and-a-half brought video camera mishaps, discovery of personal resilience, and more. One organization Carucci works with is even hosting a “return-to-next” party, where they are creating a digital scrapbook of each team member’s favourite pandemic stories.
6. Be a source of joy
One of the best ways to ease any angst among the team is to create a sense of lightheartedness. Humour, used thoughtfully, can be especially helpful. Sharing stories of your own work-from-home mayhem makes it safe for others to follow suit.
“As the team’s leader, this is an especially good time to show servanthood — doing what you can to personally ease the transition for team members for whom it might be difficult,” Carucci wrote. “Demonstrating genuine support now will build the team’s loyalty and dedication to each other and to your performance commitments for the year ahead.”
It’s safe to say most employees won’t be cheering when return-to-office expectations are announced. A recent survey from Harvard Business School of 1,500 employees found 81% either didn’t want to come back at all or preferred a hybrid model of work. Of those, 27% hoped to remain working remotely full-time, while 61% preferred to work from home two to three days a week. Only 18% want to return to in-person work full-time.
“This transition will invite us all to bring the best versions of ourselves back to the office and reveal how the pandemic made us even stronger,” said Carucci. “Knowing that, your role as the team’s leader is uniquely important in helping others traverse this with hope, kindness, and patience to make sure those are the versions that actually show up.”