Returning to the office? Boost your team's Resilience
Talking to coaching clients in recent days, an interesting picture is forming about the realities of returning to office-based work. Many are thrilled at the prospect of being able to get on with their job with the stimulation of colleagues nearby, the lack of domestic distraction and the ease of communication. Others however are nervous at the prospect - how will the distancing logistics be managed; how safe will they be and interestingly, for some living on their own, will they be able to get as much work done as they have achieved working from home?
Our work with managers to create as welcoming a work-place as possible for returners is aimed at building truly resilient teams for these unpredictable times.
Here are some tips that we have developed with our clients:
1. Returning from work begins long before anyone physically arrives in the office. Individuals will be imagining their return long before it happens, and need time to get used to the idea that a return to office working is required or an option. Early clear notice about the need to return is helpful. One person I spoke with was aghast at being asked by email to turn up in the office on the following day, without briefing, for the first time since March. They were emotionally on the back-foot and their anxiety about being in the workplace spiked, unnecessarily.
2. Some people will need a phased approach to returning to work in the office – working from home part-time or for part of a day to allow anxiety to subside and confidence in the new arrangements to grow. Again early communication of, and agreement to these options, reduces stress. Everyone’s orientation to a return to the office will be unique and managers need to bear in mind that their attitude will be different to some of their staff.
3. Think about the emotional climate you set as leader. Just as the physical layout* and logistics is important, so is your ‘mood architecture’. This is the leader’s job to establish. For example, employees may benefit from ‘buddying up’ with a colleague before re-entering the building. One client found that meeting for a coffee with a colleague before entering the office for the first time was a great boost and reassurance after such a long time physically distant. Managers will know the people in their teams – will this collegial support happen ‘naturally’ for everyone, or does the manager need to nudge these connections into life?
4. Once in the office, awareness of personal boundaries is key. Physical distance is obvious (though not always easy to maintain) however there will also be invisible boundaries. One senior leader expressed their dismay at going into the office for a specific meeting, in a designated office, only to find that their colleagues assumed that while on the premises, they would join other activities. It took courage for the leader to assert their boundaries in the face of these assumptions by colleagues that they were genuinely pleased to see.
5. Notice body language – check out how people are and pick up on their discomfort and dilemmas. Our pre-Covid 19 teams had established norms of what we could expect of each other – these norms need now to be scrutinised. Now, an individual more consciously represents the family or community ‘system’ of which they are part and may hold a duty of care for its vulnerable, shielding members. The same person will be part of a work team – with its needs and vulnerabilities. At the intersection of these sets of interests an individual may feel tension, dilemmas (‘whose needs are most important?’) and guilt at letting down either ‘side’. Requests that were neutral in a pre-Covid 19 world, may now feel pressurising and coercive. Managers with hierarchical power need to be patient and mindful of this dynamic, and check out the effect on individuals of the requests they make.
5. When we are under pressure we tend to ‘revert to type’ and in our work with people’s strengths we know that ‘type’, often means using those strengths that bring a sense of confidence and competence, even if the context requires a different approach. For example, people with Relationship-Building strengths may need to spend a lot of time talking, catching –up on news and re-establishing the social glue of the workplace. Those with Executing strengths may be ‘heads down’ getting work done, catch-up on ‘lost time’ and not want to engage in conversation. Others who relish Influencing may be sharing ideas that they have been bottling up, whilst those with Thinking strengths, who enjoy researching and exploring their own thoughts may, to some extent wish they were still working from home! Teams who know their strengths can explore what most supports them – and make these differences discussable and a source of connection rather than frustration.
6. Some people are natural ‘hubs ‘ in an office community – this may be because of their role or temperament. Wise managers will make ‘welcoming’ a key objective for these ‘hub’ people during the phases of return. The more welcome people will feel, the sooner they will settle into new productive routines.
7. Consider which innovations need to be translated into the physical world from our new virtual WFH office life. Many teams made an impressive shift to WFH and on-line communication with check-ins and tea breaks that supported well-being particularly of those living in difficult situations. This impulse is still needed back in the work place, maybe even more so for some people.
8. Remember the team members who are still not back in the office for whatever reason. Their situation could be challenging. When everyone WFH we were all in the same boat – however during a phased return to work other dynamics will surface. Everyone may need to make additional efforts to communicate across the team, and include absent members in discussions that effect them – and at times decline to participate if they are unable to be present. The impulse to be part of group agreements as we get together again is powerful and natural. However for those NOT physically present this dynamic can be hurtful and alienating and take time and energy for the team to heal.
Returning to the workplace is a mirror of our migration into lock-down, and provides a great opportunity to reflect, learn and create a welcoming work-place. Our research shows that where team members feel genuinely welcomed into this new phase they will more effectively meet the needs of their customers and colleagues and support each other in doing so. In other words, the return to your work-place offers another opportunity to boost your team’s resilience.