As governors announce reopening plans for their states, companies are starting to welcome remote workers back to their offices and cubicles for the first time since March.
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On the face of it, it's an exciting next step toward something resembling normalcy after a strange couple of months. But the adjustment will also be accompanied by varying degrees of apprehension and fear. Leadership at all companies, including those in the promotional products industry, needs to acknowledge those emotions, affirm them and stay in constant communication with their teams to lead them through this next phase.
"We'll feel exhilarated, and then also anxious and uncertain. We're going to have a lot of different, conflicting feelings, and leadership has to acknowledge that."Dr. Kathryn Smerling, psychotherapist
"We're going to have a rush of feelings," says Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a psychotherapist based in New York City. "We'll feel exhilarated, and then also anxious and uncertain. It is possible to hold both ends as we greet colleagues – you're excited to see them, but also a little apprehensive. We're going to have a lot of different, conflicting feelings, and leadership has to acknowledge that."
Here's what company management needs to remember as they reopen their doors.
Just because the office has gotten the green light to reopen (albeit with health guidelines in place), not everyone will be comfortable with returning just yet. And that's OK, says Mike Goldman, a business leadership coach in New Jersey and the author of Breakthrough Leadership Team: Strengthening the Heart and Soul of Your Company. Stay in frequent communication with them to assess their needs. Just as managers hosted frequent check-ins during remote work, they'll need to do the same in the months to come. It allows them to monitor employees' situations, while also offering a feeling of certainty. Make sure to acknowledge the difficulties of the situation and encourage the team to express their needs.
"Be empathetic and vulnerable," says Goldman. "Coming off as a strong, perfect superhero sounds logical, but then your people think they have to be perfect and they don't share their needs with you. There's a whole lot going on in their lives that they're not telling you. To be a leader, you have to be vulnerable."
Start by sharing your own concerns, and make sure managers are doing the same with their teams. Acknowledge what you're feeling about the next steps of reopening – the positive and the negative – and affirm that people are allowed to have conflicting feelings in this unprecedented situation. Employees will then open up too, and they'll be more inclined to ask for understanding during these times.
"Employees shouldn't be afraid to ask for help," says Smerling. "That's going to be the hardest thing for people, especially if they've come through this relatively unscathed. They'll think, 'Why should I ask for help?' We're contending with a lot. Acknowledge that to help the transition. You'll have fewer communication problems."
At larger firms, it's not always feasible for the C-suite to talk to each employee individually. Instead, have department directors take the pulse of their groups and what needs are being expressed and synthesize the information gleaned to figure out next steps. "Talk to leaders at every level of the company to get specific concerns," says Bill Higgs, a Charlotte, NC-based corporate culture expert and author of Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in Your Business. "Then you can figure out what's best for the greatest number of employees."
When you announce return plans, be prepared for people to desire to continue working at home for the time being, or to split the week between home and the office. Reasons could be anything, including lingering fears of infecting a family member with underlying conditions, lacking adequate childcare as kids close out the school year virtually, or simply just not feeling mentally ready, says David Lewis, founder and CEO of OperationsInc, a Norwalk, CT-based HR consulting firm. All are valid concerns.
"It's going to be a very big challenge for HR," he says. "Employers need to be sensitive to and aware of both the business's needs and employees' needs. You can't rush them back in because 'This is how we used to work.' You're going to have a lot of scared people, and that's legitimate. Messaging should be less, 'Hey, it's time to come back' and more 'Hey, if you want to come back…' Make it about a choice; don't make it a requirement."
Lewis warns that, when balancing employees' preferences with what's right for the business, management needs to focus beyond standard operating procedures and just be there for their people.
"Don't look at this as a legal or employment matter; look at it as a practical, human matter," he says. "A lot of companies are looking at this narrowly right now, as in, 'What's our legal right?' Because usually, when someone doesn't show up for work, they have the right to fire and replace. But that's too legalistic and narrow right now. Let employees choose what they want to do. You don't want the reputation of being the company that fired someone who was scared to come back."
"Let employees choose what they want to do. You don’t want the reputation of being the company that fired someone who was scared to come back."David Lewis, OperationsInc
At the same time, hold team members accountable to each other and the company, to help it get back on track. Everyone should be expected to follow health guidelines in the office and continue pulling their weight with their responsibilities, wherever they're working. "It's OK to hold people accountable," says Goldman. "You don't have to be a softie. Make sure employees are committed to each other. It's more important now than ever."
Put Aside 'Business as Usual'
With the disruption caused by the pandemic, it's understandable to want to hit the ground running to bring business back again. But a quick recovery won't be possible at most firms; the virus has changed everything, including office environments. Give people time to acclimate.
"It's going to be strange, and there's going to be a lot of adjustment," says Lewis. "We won't be back to normal for a long time. It's not going to be, 'OK, we're back! Let's start from where we left off!' We'll have to overcome and adapt – no side-by-side workstations, no hanging out and chit-chatting in breakrooms and restrooms, no crowded conference rooms. This is what we're going to have to deal with."
At the same time, it's perfectly acceptable to implement communications guidelines to help smooth out the transition period, and make sure remote workers still feel connected to their in-office peers.
"I had a recent video call with a client in Atlanta, which is reopening already, and three of them in the office were at one webcam," says Goldman. "I asked them to go to separate offices, so it was easier to see everyone in the meeting. Remember that those who continue to work from home are going to feel out of the loop, but you can't force them to go back."
Prioritize Mental Health
People are normally reticent about discussing their mental health, particularly at work. But as companies reopen, remind employees that it's OK to have different feelings, and give them the privacy and space to address it.
It's not just personal apprehension; the changed nature of the work environment (from heightened health measures to staff changes that will become more apparent once people return to the building) are going to weigh on psyches as well.
"You'll have strict social distancing measures in place," says Lewis. "And desks that were occupied won't be, because they had to be laid off or they passed away from the virus. Standard operating procedure is out the window."
When workers return and find that others won't be back, there may be some survivor's guilt, says Higgs. "Leadership is always very aware of how fragile a given business is, but they don't always show it," says Higgs, says the long-time oil executive in Houston who steered his firm through countless ups and downs in a notoriously tumultuous market. "Now, employees are also aware of how fragile things can be and everyone knows the fear of uncertainty."
Offer some comfort with a gift to prepare them for returning, says Higgs, like swag bags with a "We're coming back together soon! Here's what you need" message that contain masks, sanitizer, desk wipes and a run-down of what kind of health guidelines to expect back at the office. "Maintain open communication, and create a sense of working together," he says.
Additionally, have a trusted mental health professional on-call to offer confidential consultations to employees as they navigate this next phase. "Give out their contact information as someone employees can anonymously reach out to for maybe 15 to 20 minutes when needed," says Smerling. "Encourage discussion about mental health while offering privacy and no judgment. There will be collective trauma, and it will have many different faces."
The way in which leadership handles the situation will be apparent to customers and vendors too. "Everyone will look back at how you handled this – were you focused outward and strengthening relationships, or did people take one look and run away?" says Goldman. "Passionate, loyal employees make for passionate, loyal clients. This situation will show who you really are."
Leading During the Transition
In this episode of Counselor’s Promo Insiders podcast, business leadership coach Mike Goldman, author of Breakthrough Leadership Team: Strengthening the Heart and Soul of Your Company, discusses what the gradual transition back to in-office work may look like, what leaders need to be aware of in this next phase and how they can come out stronger on the other side.