The workplace is changed. As parts of the world begin to loosen coronavirus-related restrictions, organizations are emerging from COVID-induced hibernation. These transitions back to work are gradual. Uncertainty will remain for months as threats of renewed waves of coronavirus persist. We are anticipating a new normal — but what we need is a new now.
The radical change of these times demands empathic leadership to keep teams engaged, cohesive and forward-focused. Leaders must demonstrate a spirit of purpose and optimism to reinforce the idea that an uncertain future has the potential to be a better future. Here are nine steps for leading your team into an unknowable future.
1. Envision what success looks like and move toward it.
In its recovery guide for organizations, Deloitte encourages leaders to imagine what post-recovery success looks like. Once you’ve clarified goals, reverse-engineer the next steps for quick and effective action. Envisioning what success entails frees up thinking about the present and can help teams identify quick wins.
As preparation for returning to work, leaders have an opportunity to review their organization’s operating models, expectations, standards, values and strengths. Reflect on what worked well during the recent period of isolation and let teams decide what they need to start, stop or continue doing to achieve goals.
2. Embrace trust.
“Trust is the glue of life,” says The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Steven Covey. “It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”
Leaders must transition their organizations from a state of treading water to moving toward a restored future. Enable your teams to succeed by embracing trust. Like many business leaders, you’ve likely built a substantial reserve of trust from your teams through your navigation of the coronavirus crisis’s early stages. Now is the time to build on that foundation with acts that unite your team.
3. Make productivity sustainable.
Today’s distributed workforce demands new thinking about organizing work. Establish clear boundaries to ensure sustainable working hours and productivity. Teams must discuss office hours, share tips on time-tracking and set clear expectations about responding to emails.
One benefit to organizations from the pandemic is the reduction of the number of meetings. Despite a traditional argument that face-to-face meetings are necessary, businesses didn’t grind to a halt when meetings ceased as a result of the pandemic. Going forward, meeting organizers should define the purpose, the necessary attendees and the amount of time every meeting requires.
4. Document your recovery playbook.
Resuming work requires answers to questions such as where to begin, how to keep employees and customers safe and healthy, when to communicate and what the next steps are. PricewaterhouseCoopers developed a guide to returning to the workplace (PDF) with additional questions for leaders to address.
Whether it be leading and communicating change, prioritizing the health and well-being of team members, operating with additional demands or encouraging empathy, leaders should initiate discussions in the workplace around these critical areas as they develop plans to keep their people and businesses moving through a recovery. As an example, Tesla’s leaders designed a return to work playbook outlining the company’s plan to provide a safe and healthy work environment for its employees.
5. Prioritize your people over yourself.
Organizations want their leaders to exhibit vulnerability and empathy. On a national level, the leaders who have most effectively dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated clear and consistent messaging, compassion, and solidarity with their constituents. Most of these leaders are female, from Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel implementing testing from the get-go and Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan implementing significant measures at the first sign of illness to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern locking down the whole country with swift and decisive action. And in a press event, Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg spoke directly to her nation’s children, answering their questions about the coronavirus and letting them know it was okay to feel scared.
Leadership demands an emotional connection with your people. When leaders prioritize their people ahead of themselves, they elevate others and foster team well-being.
6. Practice empathy.
Expecting all employees to resume a so-called normal work life isn’t realistic. The COVID-19 crisis impacted everybody, leaving a stain on the fabric of your organization. Be mindful of the ongoing health concerns employees have for friends and family, the challenges of juggling childcare and homeschooling or the stress of navigating the crisis’s financial impact. Empathy will serve you well as a leader and provide your team an extra measure of grace as they return to the office.
7. Provide access to support for emotional wellness.
When employees do begin to return to the workplace, they’ll be dealing with various emotions. People may experience feelings of loss, sadness and grief — emotions that will inevitably impact the way they work and how teams perform.
Leaders must help employees work through these emotions by providing access to support resources such as the Lifeworks-offered Employee Assistance Program and help them navigate sensitive and mental health conversations in the workplace.
8. Re-open with a people-first culture in place.
As you re-open and reset your business, put your employee’s needs at the forefront. That means more than creating a physically safe workplace. According to a Harvard Business Review article on returning to work, here’s what leaders should do:
- Outline the conditions to re-open safely to bring people back to offices.
- Define how many people can return over a staggered period while ensuring connection with people continuing at home.
- Continue delivering honest, transparent communication with all people while highlighting the organization’s vision, values and core focus.
- Appreciate, recognize, and celebrate inspiring people within the organization and how they make a difference.
- Be mindful of people’s different circumstances and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of individual needs.
- Begin conversations with your people about what the future looks like through reconnecting with a purpose to stimulate innovation and new growth.
- Remain connected with people who have exited the organization to enable potential hires as new opportunities emerge.
9. Listen to your employees as you reset.
Remote working has exposed the costs and efficiencies of expanding a virtual working infrastructure. For many people, remote work eliminated commute time, allowing them more quality time with family — many employees won’t want to give that up.
You may need to look for new workspaces, renovate current spaces and shift your thinking about how teams collaborate in a shared office. Listening to your people with the purpose of understanding will be crucial in resetting work environments.