How to lead a successful return to work

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Written by Karen Meager and John McLachlan on 25 August 2020 in Features
Features

Managing the return to work - what should leaders be doing? Karen Meager and John McLachlan offer their insight.

It’s important to remember that everyone will have navigated the past few months in different ways which makes clear communication even more important

As we start to return to our workplaces it is evidently clear that they are not going to be the same places we left a few months ago. As a leader, many will be looking to you for guidance and direction, which at a time of great uncertainty can seem an insurmountable challenge.

A great deal of effort has gone into making sure that workplaces are ‘Covid-Secure’ including the introduction of screens, altered shift patterns, social distancing measures and hand sanitiser dispensers. Alongside these physical considerations, due care and attention needs to be paid to the emotional and psychological impact on staff returning after an extended absence from the traditional workplace. 

Given the continued presence of coronavirus, albeit at lower levels than before, and the ever worrying risk of a ‘second wave’, there will be much more to consider when it comes to the wellbeing of staff than in pre-covid times.

There will undoubtedly be many who are excited at the prospect of returning to the workplace and reuniting with colleagues and clients, albeit slightly differently from ‘normal’. 

If you are one of the many leaders now tasked with managing the return to work, here is some guidance on how you can support your staff during this unprecedented time.

Managing anxieties

Working from home during a coronavirus pandemic has certainly not been easy for many employees, particularly those who have had to care for children. There will undoubtedly be many who are excited at the prospect of returning to the workplace and reuniting with colleagues and clients, albeit slightly differently from ‘normal’.

However this will also be coupled with anxiety and fear about how the workplace or perhaps even their role may have changed, whether it will be safe and what the new procedures may be.

Try to identify and manage some of these anxieties ahead of time and be sure to emphasise that the health and safety of employees remains your top priority. Continuing to work from home or introducing a gradual return with staggered start times can help to reassure team members who may be worried about coming into contact with others or where social distancing is more difficult to accommodate.

Whatever format you choose, be sure to clearly communicate why this is the safest and most appropriate course of action right now. This helps to ensure that everyone feels involved in the decision-making process and stops the rumour mill from swirling.

It’s important to remember that everyone will have navigated the past few months in different ways which makes clear communication even more important. Language should be as balanced as possible to avoid excluding any employees.

 

Some employees may have been furloughed and others may have been working throughout lockdown. Some may have even been personally affected by COVID-19, so it is important to dedicate time to bring each individual up to speed.

Don’t assume that everyone is happy just because there are a lack of questions asked, anxiety may be preventing them from reaching out and voicing their concerns, so regularly reassure employees that you or their line managers are available. 

Getting people back together

These experiences are likely to have impacted individuals on a subconscious level; their last few days in the office might have been chaotic, the sudden change in routine may have been unsettling or the prolonged time spent away could have created anxiety about returning.

To help address this, leaders should encourage team members to meet up outside, as safely as possible, or online, to discuss their experiences and re-engage before resuming work together. It will help people to feel a sense of normality, ease some of the worries by reigniting the feeling of openness and show colleagues that support is available to them.

Take care of yourself too

For leaders, it is easy to fall into the trap of taking the responsibility for everyone’s welfare upon your shoulders, but this is neither healthy nor practical. Be sure to create and stick to your own boundaries to replenish your energy and if you are feeling concerned or under pressure, acknowledge these feelings so you can work through them.

Rotating accessibility with a deputy and creating a welfare team can help to share some of these responsibilities. You should also empower your line managers to be able to answer the queries of employees and know where to point them for increased support, such as occupational health, or you may find the guidance provided by Mind or Samaritans helpful.

Similarly, when there are feelings of anxiety, you may feel under pressure to answer every single question and be your vision of ‘perfect’. In these uncertain times, it is not always possible to have these answers straight away and it is likely decisions will need to change when government guidance changes.

Remain authentic in your communication by describing what you are clear about and for the questions you are unable to answer, tell staff that you will find out the answers and get back to them when you say you will. This maintains transparency and shows you are a diligent leader.

What if you are continuing remote working?

The covid-19 pandemic has accelerated conversations over the future of remote working, with some organisations opting to continue with this format, either at a company-wide level or within specific departments.

For some, this may be for personal reasons, such as because a member of their family is shielding or because they are a parent with children now off school until September. If this is the case, how can you as a leader facilitate this working culture going forward?

Firstly, take stock over what has been working and what hasn’t whilst being open to revisions. Some people may have enjoyed socialising virtually, whereas others have found it draining or may have missed physical contact.

This is a good opportunity to survey employees on how effective they have found the processes over the last few months. It can help you to strike a balance and embed some of the more successful aspects moving forward. From your findings, you can pilot some of these ideas with a small group first or work with consultants to explore more company-wide options.

What is clear is that leaders have a pivotal role to play in managing the return to the workplace, whatever that may look like over the coming months. Whilst managing the physical changes to make the workplace safe, the mental impact should also remain high on the agenda.

Leaders should be highlighting the changes that have been made to protect employees, communicating clearly and encouraging conversations whilst protecting their own wellbeing and upskilling line managers too.

 

About the author

Karen Meager and John McLachlan are the founders of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consulting

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