Returning to the office after the pandemic

Many SLS clients are getting back to work in their familiar confines after spending the last year in virtual relationships with a distributed workforce. Your business may be one of them.

Whether you’re all the way back in face-to-face work days, or easing back with hybrid schedules, this peculiar moment in the life of your team provides something rarely seen – a chance to start fresh.

Over several months, the people you work with have adjusted to working remotely. This adjustment meant accepting isolation; getting familiar with people from the little boxes they occupied on a screen and maybe walking the dog between calls. They’ve also been consumers of the most polarized information in modern history. The people you welcome back will have radically different perspectives on returning to work. Well, now they’re back and looking to find their new “new normal”.

We aren’t going to get into vaccinations, masks and testing in this post, but the following approaches will help you lead your team of humans down whichever path you’ve chosen as you pursue your company’s vision and mission in the shadow of a pandemic.

So, here are four simple ideas to help ensure your team bounces back stronger than ever.

1. Easy does it

Everybody is anxious right now, and nobody is anxious about the same stuff. With COVID-19 still an active threat, and perspectives on vaccines, masks and testing ranging from mandating them to resisting them, every one of your people will be returning with some kind of personal anxiety.

Based on everything from medical history to demographics to where they get their news, every one of your people will also have a different perception of the health risk brought on by working alongside other people in a confined space, and a different tolerance for the methods you put in place to mitigate that risk. The Cleveland Clinic has put out some helpful stress handling techniques you can pass on to teammates who may be hesitant about leaving their protected homes to rejoin the economy in-person.

Some safety protocols are more or less universally accepted by people. Distancing, for example, is a good tool to ease back into a shared workspace. My wife and I were sailing full-time at the height of the pandemic, and we considered ourselves social distancing world champions. While maybe not as remote as we were, your team has grown quite comfortable in their own homes, regulating how much contact they had with the rest of humanity. Now their return to work has changed all that. For those teammates, smart and practical distancing will offer a buffer of comfort. Also, those with a COVID risk tolerance at the other end of the spectrum generally accept distancing out of respect for others and some degree of caution. It’s one area of common ground you can leverage for workplace peace and productivity.

In this very difficult environment, it’s important to realize you don’t have to snap everyone back to the good ol’ pre-pandemic days. Exercise the foresight, patience and empathy of a leader with vision. Know where you’re going, then implement a realistic and manageable plan to get there.

While it’s no longer OK for you to attend meetings without pants, you probably learned some more socially acceptable habits during the pandemic …

2. Set an adaptable battle rhythm

What is your new business pace? In the US military we called it a “battle rhythm” – a deliberate daily cycle or order for the office routine. When does the workday start? When does it end? What are the new reporting expectations? How often does the leadership team meet? When we do get together, how long does the meeting last?

While collaborating remotely, you probably developed a lot of habits forged by isolation and software limitations. While it’s no longer OK for you to attend meetings without pants, you probably learned some more socially acceptable habits during the pandemic – shorter meetings, advance agendas, concise discussions, deeper analysis and more reliable timelines are some of the many aspects that can, and probably should, make their way into your new battle rhythm.

Conversely, you’re physically present now. Managing By Walking Around (MBWA) is a “thing” for a reason. Human presence, even with a little distance, is something you’ll want to willfully nurture.

Whatever new processes and protocols you establish, remember to stay flexible. New variants, spikes in cases, more restrictive rules or other developments may require more improvisation. Stay close to your team on this. Sense the factors influencing them and respond with adjusted practices and protocols. Adaptability and flexibility, if you practiced them before things got crazy, probably helped you and your team get through the pandemic. If you didn’t practice them before, now they’re essential.

Which brings us to the next thing.

3. Invest in people now

The old saying “there’s no time like the present” hasn’t been more true in recent history than it is today.

While there’s a sense of urgency to ramp the business back up, catch up on inventory and restart the project that was put on hold over a year ago; it’s also the ideal time to invest in growing people. First of all, they’re hungry for it after months of languishing on their own. Secondly, the opportunity to establish new habits is ripe in a dynamic environment during which everything gets shuffled. Group and individual professional development opportunities like The Transformational Leader-Manager Experience from Simple Leadership Strategies represent great ways to build camaraderie, establish new positive leadership behaviors and show people they’re valued by investing in their growth.

Especially as many employees are choosing not to come back to work in what is being called “The Great Resignation“, there’s no time like the present to invest in – and keep – your people.

4. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

The freedom to come and go close to home; take care of household chores while logged into webinars and spend time with family between meetings made for a pretty attractive work environment for the last several months. A lot of your team (maybe all of them) are going to miss this autonomy and liberty. Realize some level of blending personal and professional life may be a permanent part of the American work environment from now on. In fact, many businesses were already heading this way prior to the pandemic, offering benefits like on-site child care, remote working, flex schedules and unlimited PTO.

Many of these new innovations make things better, even in healthy times. For example, we created a virtual version of our popular Transformational Leader-Manager (TLM) Experience in response to pandemic realities. A recent look at the success of these virtual workshops showed us eight advantages virtual learning sessions enjoy over face-to-face sessions. Who knew?

As you put together your post-pandemic battle rhythm, do some brainstorming with your team to establish which workplace evolutions are appropriate to keep. They might have gotten here sooner than expected, but perhaps the time is right to lead the wave and ride it into the future.

Whether now or in the near future, we’re all going to have to find our way in the new workplace this pandemic and the societal response to it have created. Some of this will be easy, but much of it will not. Early success will be based on the level of trust and teamwork you engendered in your company PRIOR to the pandemic. If you find it’s tough sledding now, maybe it’s time to transform yourself a little. By design, SLS works to build leaders at ALL levels!

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TD Smyers is Chief Executive Officer at Simple Leadership Strategies. A retired Navy Captain, he led a squadron of Combat Aircrews and a joint air base while in uniform. After the military, he served as a Regional CEO at two national nonprofits and founded two startups. He’s also a certified speaker and coach.

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