returning to work

Returning to work team strategies you need

It felt surreal when the world shut down in March, but it feels equally strange to be reopening and returning to work when there’s still so much uncertainty about the pandemic (particularly for our American readers, with escalating numbers in the US). 

Now that outbreak numbers have slowed in Canada (and other countries), Canada’s provinces and territories are reopening — each with its own guidelines and limits set by local public health officials. 

No matter where your business operates, we hope the one constant is that public health guidance will determine social distancing guidelines such as how many people may be in a workplace at any one time and what protocols should be followed for close-contact environments.

Many of you are leaders who a few months ago were figuring out how to successfully lead remote teams and you must now implement plans for returning to work safely. This gives a whole new dimension to the notion of leadership agility, doesn’t it?

As you are building return-to-work strategies, here are some things to consider that will make returning to work less stressful for your team members:

Well-being has to be the top priority

Everything about this pandemic has been stressful. We have leaders figuring out a new way to do business from home or on the frontlines, employees worried about job security, health and safety on the job, children’s education, etc., etc. — and no end in sight to a virus that the world’s top health experts are still trying to understand.

When we talk about well-being, we need to remember that means physical and emotional or psychological health. Many of us have intuitively read the public health guidelines and are planning ways to minimize health risks through schedules (to minimize how many people are on site at certain times), seating plans (to conform to physical distancing requirements) and ways to minimize contact (from visitors or people going to pick up food or ordering food delivery). We’ve got plans for hand sanitizing, mask policies and maybe even carefully added plexiglass barriers.
Pro-tip: The faster you react to public health guidelines and put measures in place to monitor and enforce adherence, the more your team will feel you really value their health and safety.

However, during such uncertain times, we as leaders must also consider how our teams are doing emotionally and psychologically with the return to work. Nothing about this situation is normal, plus there is no definitive end to this crisis, and that means most people are managing grief and anxiety on some level (and that can show up at work as fatigue, anger, resentment, despair, lack of focus or an inability to concentrate). Some folks on your team might feel glad to return to work, but there may well be others who are really worried or just plain overwhelmed and exhausted from months of this. Reassuring staff that their safety (physical and emotional) is a priority is important, and then, more so, following through with measures that show you are walking the talk.

It’s a good time to post reminders that people have extended health benefits to cover counselling and massage or to access the Employee Assistance Program for counselling if they need support. Leaders may also want to consider extra supports, either supplementing extended health during this time or offering online workshops that build awareness of stress and anxiety and healthy ways to cope. It will be important that you talk about benefits and services anytime you speak to teams or groups. You might add some comments about the importance of self-care into your speaking notes.

Keep lines of communication open.
At the beginning of the shutdown, we encouraged leaders to become comfortable with not having all the answers. We shared several tips for how to reassure your team in uncertain times, and all of that still holds true as you begin returning to work. As leaders, we need to be trusted to provide accurate and timely information.

Turn to the public health experts for the most credible information. Ask people about their concerns and, if you can, address them. Demonstrate how you’re taking care of everyone on your team and how seriously you take their worries. If you don’t have answers, reassure folks you’ll get what information you can and get back to them (and then follow through!).

Use a coach approach to help team members who are returning to work.
You likely already mentor (guide by sharing your own experiences), direct (tell team members what they need to do) and teach (show folks how to do things). Coaching is another way that you can lead people and help them communicate, innovate, become self-reliant, take responsibility and build confidence.

Here are some practical ideas for using a coach approach for returning to work and encouraging your direct reports to use a coach approach with their team members. A coach approach relies on drawing conversation out of people to help them figure out their own solutions — ways to get through that resonate for them (even if it doesn’t resonate with you).

Focus on building resilience alongside productivity.
Sure, returning to work means many of us as leaders are looking to get business back on track. But we cannot push productivity alone.

This has been a challenging time for everyone. Some people might bounce back quickly, but others may need some help to recover from difficulties after working from home or as they return to work. Here are practical ways leaders can build resilience alongside productivity — things like breaking negative thought cycles, setting healthy habits, focusing on what we can control, cultivating abundance thinking and more.

It might be very helpful if you do some education around this to ensure that your managers are able to support their direct reports in these ways. It’s crucial that your leadership team is modelling the behaviours and supporting employees in the ways you want to establish for building resilience now as folks are returning to work and moving forward.

Continue to be flexible.
We’ve seen that working from home can work. In the weeks and months ahead, many of your team members may face their own health challenges or need to care for sick loved ones. Some might need ongoing flexibility right now.

We’ve seen some major employers completely embrace work-from-home flexibility. It’s possible that a hybrid of work-from-home and return-to-work may be practical. This way, you can keep business going while also supporting older workers, those with compromised immune systems, those caring for either children or aging parents and those who just aren’t feeling comfortable yet. Letting your teams know that you are open to talking about ways to continue to support them now and later should the virus outbreaks start to escalate again could be very reassuring at this time.

Coach’s Questions

What ways have you been supporting your team through this crisis? What is challenging for your team, and individual team members, right now? What can you do differently or better to support folks who are returning to work?