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A Leader’s Responsibility as we Prepare to Return to the Office

A little over a year ago, many people had to instantaneously transition to a work-from-home (WFH) environment. And while this was tough, it is quite possible that over the next few months as organizations begin to open their offices back up, the transition back to the office will be even more difficult. Current surveys by several organizations show that, on average, 51% of people do not feel safe returning to the office. But safety is not the only reason the return to the office will likely be more difficult.

Researchers from Drexel University have found that the way our brain sense of unexpected change will likely play a factor in how people feel returning to the office. Here is a summary of what they found; When many were forced to work from home with almost no notice, and few things guiding us, we got lost in the unfamiliar. People had to figure out how to turn dining rooms into offices and bedrooms into classrooms. When this happened, our adrenaline kicked in, we became more resourceful and adapted. We also allowed ourselves to feel a sense of pride, for overcoming the uncertainty in the situation.

Returning to work, however, will be going back to what we know. Our brains will shift into autopilot of a version of our old familiar routine. Only, it will get interrupted by your new reality. We’re not used to having our temperature taken, having desks separated (although many may like the space), having to stand six feet apart, and wearing PPE. All of this will go against what your brain expects. It may only take ten seconds to adjust, but that shift requires enormous mental energy, and you may be making it many times a day for the first few weeks back.

As leaders, we have a great responsibility to help our teams adjust and prepare for a transition back to the office. There are things that you need to keep top of mind, and while googling this subject will provide tons of resources, here are some that I think are critical.

Managing Anxiety (for your self and your team)

Remember, people may be trying to hide their anxiety, heck – YOU may be trying to hide it, but you may be wearing it on your sleeve. The problem with not managing anxiety is that it quickly deteriorates relationships, sleep, appetites, ability to focus, etc. So we need to talk about it, we need to help each other, and we need to normalize that people are anxious. As a leader, each of your team members will feel differently, it is up to you to have confidential and candid conversations with each of them about their feelings so you are aware and helping them manage the situation. This is your time to make sure your are communicating and getting personal. Just don’t forget the importance of accurate communication, and that listening is so critical to effective communication.

Celebrate the Success of your Team

Your team may be feeling as though they have been focused just on surviving. But, I am certain that your team accomplished a lot during what may have been the most difficult and unique circumstances of their career. This is why it is critical, that as you prepare to return to “normal,” you make a commitment to publicly celebrating the individual and collective successes of your team. Celebrations boost morale, strengthen teams, help employees form connections, and increase employee engagement. All of which will be needed as we transition back to the office.

Remember, This is the New Reality Not the New Normal

We have to remember that this transition back to work is not going to feel “normal.” It is really more the “new reality.” Employees will be wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Meetings and collaboration will have to happen differently. Employees may worry that any false step could lead to really dark consequences. Perhaps in the past you focused on performance and accountability rather than culture. Now is the perfect time to reset expectations, get specific about how your team works together, and build new team norms. I would suggest using this as a jumping off point for defining your new ideal state, with your team having the first input on what that should be!

Focus on Grace (in both the Christian and non-Christian sense)

I use the word “Grace” a lot, and people’s first response is usually “I don’t want to touch on religion in the workplace,” which I can understand, however grace is a way of being, and you don’t have to be Christian to extend others grace or to receive with grace. Acting with grace guides us to give without expecting anything in return, it allows us to keep things in perspective. Grace will also assist you in inspiring others and resisting the temptation to be too hard on folks as they are trying to adjust to the new reality of the office space. But – don’t forget that you have to first have to activate that grace in yourself!

Bottom line is this – as we all plan to return to work in the coming months, as leaders you must – Be deliberate. Be thoughtful. Be encouraging. Be there!

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