The calendar tells us it’s the traditional back-to-school time. Workplace homecomings are also underway as organizations return to the office and look to design their spaces and structures for today and beyond.
What a leadership moment this is: an opportunity to merge the best adaptive ideas from the last 18 months with past concepts that have stood the test of time and distance. So what are some key lessons the pandemic taught us? And how can leaders use them to help their staff adjust to being back in the office – even if on a hybrid basis?
4 THINGS WE LEARNED DURING THE PANDEMIC
1 Remote work and productivity are friends, not enemies. Managers who feared that employees would slack off if not in their line of sight or “clocking in” and “clocking out” on traditional time schedules learned an important lesson. People can be trusted to get things done when working from afar. Several studies found that productivity was the same or better among remote workers.a
2 Distance impedes communication. We learned that working apart from one another can lead to communication misfires and personal misunderstandings. Overcommunicating is essential to ensure people feel included, not just informed. Managers who weren’t good at sharing clear information about plans, roles and responsibilities before the pandemic really struggled during it. What a great reminder of the power of clear, consistent communication strategies moving forward.
3 Empathy is essential. The pandemic traumatized people. They endured fear, grief, isolation, loneliness and depression. Every single person has a story of some way the pandemic affected their health and happiness. Managers who acted with caring outreach, deep listening and thoughtful responses not only helped their employees through the darkest times, but also built trust and loyalty that benefit everyone now and in the future.
4 People have re-evaluated and recalibrated. During an extraordinary time in their lives, many people took a fresh look at what matters most to them. They tallied up the time they lost in commuting, or doing jobs they didn’t love, or the cost of child care, or their distance from friends and family – leading them to rethink their futures. Some are inclined to quit their jobs, opt for less business travel or ask for some form of remote work. Have good conversations with these employees, and be open-minded about what’s possible. Don’t lose good people because they think you’re unapproachable or unwilling to make changes they seek.b
APPLYING THE LESSONS TO POST-PANDEMIC WORK
Clearly, you have a business to run that must be functional, reliable and fully focused on quality and service. Employee-friendliness is compatible with those goals. To that end, keep a few other things in mind in this season of change.
Make the return to the office meaningful and memorable, especially for those who were hired during the pandemic. Consider a “re-onboarding” process that introduces them to spaces they’ve never seen and faces they’ve only known on camera. Unlike colleagues who are picking up where they left off, your new hires have far fewer shared experiences with co-workers. They would benefit from a plan to truly make them feel they are not only smart about the way things operate, but truly a part of the team.
Be transparent about how people are approved for, or assigned to, a hybrid work status. This is essential to avoid perceptions of unfair treatment – or unwise planning. If you are doing a hybrid trial run, be clear about how you will measure success or failure, taking into consideration individual and team performance and, of course, how the model serves your clients or customers. And be upfront about the metrics you will use.
Ensure you don’t set up two classes of people — the “near” and the “far.” It’s easier to pitch ideas, coach a colleague, knock down a rumor and give feedback in the moment when we can easily see or serendipitously bump into people in our building. We must make a conscious effort to do that with people who work apart from us. So be intentional as a leader – don’t “love the ones you’re with” more than others.
Identify times when all hands on deck will be imperative. It could range from seasonal demands on work to training sessions to team retreats. Plan for these in-person events early, so people can put it on their calendars.
Make sure people know what’s going on in the organization. Use or improve your calendar, chat and project-tracking tools so everyone has access to information about the organization – and each other. The pandemic shift to remote work caused tech-resistant employees to learn new software skills. Don’t backslide.
Provide spaces for people to gather. If you downsize your office space because more folks are working remotely, don’t scrimp on common areas where people can get together. And make sure such spaces include good technical tools — including audio, video and connectivity — so your remote staff can join you virtually.
STRONGER, SMARTER POST-PANDEMIC LEADERS
Finally, if the pandemic wrought changes among employees, it surely did the same for leaders. You experienced many of the same human emotions and challenges during the worst of times, and you did so while simultaneously caring for your team. For that, you deserve a special measure of appreciation.
Moving forward, I believe those who led through the pandemic and its aftermath are likely to be stronger and smarter for it. They will have a Plan B for every Plan A. They will be adept at leading change – including fast pivots. They will be better communicators. They also will put a great value on emotional intelligence as a core skill for all staff, but especially for managers. And as they see employees re-evaluating what job satisfaction really means, they will win the war for talent with creativity and care.
a. Chandni, K. and Hastwell, C., “Remote work productivity study finds surprising reality: 2-year analysis,” Great Place to Work, Feb. 10, 2021, and Maurer, R., “Study finds productivity not deterred by shift to remote work,” SHRM, Sept. 16, 2020.
b. Durbin, D., Groves, S., Olson, A. and Pisani, J., “Changed by pandemic, many workers won’t return to old jobs,” AP News, May 18, 2021, and Hsu, A., “As the pandemic recedes, millions of workers are saying, ‘I quit,’” NPR, June 24, 2021.