Five ways to successfully lead teams back into the workplace

By Sangeeta Pilger

Wednesday July 1, 2020


Leaders will need to manage the unknown of the new normal while finding ways to sustain engagement and wellbeing. Sangeeta Pilger outlines how it can be done.

As society emerges from lockdown, employees are progressively returning to the workplace. To support this transition, the Australian Public Service Commission has communicated the need for employers to work flexibly with employees to enable a safe and successful transition that balances priorities, responsibilities, physical safety and personal considerations. For leaders, responding to this unique challenge is unchartered territory.

While the new normal is still unknown, it is likely that the traditional 9 to 5 workday will be challenged due to rostering, caring arrangements, or preferences for working from home. Remote working is also here to stay as a new way of operating due to the increased acceptance of video conferencing technology and its ability to reduce the time and cost associated with travel. Leaders will need to manage the unknown of the new normal while finding ways to sustain engagement and wellbeing.

Here are five strategies that can make a difference to engagement and wellbeing and support successful transition back to the workplace.

1. Foster positive habits acquired during lockdown

During lockdown many people experimented with and integrated new activities and hobbies into their lives, such as cooking, painting, exercise, meditation, boardgames and reading. When people return to the workplace they may feel concerned that they will not have time for endeavours they started to enjoy that gave them energy. As a leader, you can encourage conversation about the positive habits and rituals that helped team members during lockdown and what will enable them to integrate those pursuits in their lives as they return to the office.   This is a conversation about what work-life balance looks like moving forward, recognising  that work-life balance may have a different meaning to people to what it did before COVID-19. These conversations can leverage any silver linings lockdown provided, rather than forgetting them.

2. Focus on outcomes rather than traditional measures of time spent in the office

Employees will be looking for what is expected or being rewarded in the new normal. As time spent in the office may vary for individuals, leaders need to ensure that a focus on outcomes rather than time in the office is valued and recognised. This needs clarity from leaders on what effective performance looks like and what if anything has changed. Building trust is key to this. As a leader you can enhance trust through:

  • Authenticity: being genuine and accessible and sharing your positive intention for each person in the context of their needs.
  • Disclosure: sharing appropriate information about the boundaries/constraints that you are operating within as a leader. This further enhances authentic conversations.
  • Credibility and reliability – being competent and reliable have always been important for trust. What else can the team do to demonstrate credibility and reliability in the new normal?

At meetings check-in regularly about how well these components of trust are working in the team environment and what will help.

3. Transparency of information

When some people are in the office while others working from home, team members can   inadvertently miss out on information or have information communicated second-hand which can in turn result in rumours or miscommunication.

In the current evolving environment, ensure your team  members know where to access credible information and are familiar with the variety of communication channels they need to use, so they are not left behind. Empowering team members to be proactive with managing communication effectively is likely to increase engagement and reduce annoyance and frustration, while also preventing the unnecessary escalation of issues.

4. Create positivity in the workplace

While working remotely has had its own benefits such as not having to travel into work, buying back time, or being able to better balance work and personal responsibilities, there are many workplace activities that people enjoyed in the pre COVID-19 era. Some examples are coffee meetings, Friday drinks, social club activities, lunchtime walks/runs with colleagues, and discussions during face to face training.

As a leader you can make a difference by taking the time to learn about what people have missed about the office and what can be integrated back into the new work routine while  maintaining social distancing. Remember that when people feel energised, they feel ready to engage and be productive.  Hold regular check-ins to identify what is helping people feel positive about being back in the workplace and identify what else will help.

5. Enhance resilience through building self-awareness

Resilience is about maintaining or recovering well-being in the face of adversity. People have either been directly affected by adversity through recent events or are likely to have been affected by people who have. For example the emotional or financial pressures, or caring responsibilities associated with COVID-19 have affected people’s ability to function at optimal levels. Also some may be apprehensive about the time and effort that is needed to get back into their office routine. Any of these scenarios can affect people’s resilience. As a leader, the best place to start is with self-awareness about what you are doing or not doing that is affecting resilience.

The SCARF Model provides a useful way to enhance resilience. SCARF is an acronym for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. It is based on the premise that much of human motivation is governed by minimising threat and maximising rewards. The five domains of SCARF are known to activate either the primary reward or primary threat circuitry in the brain. As an example, a perceived threat in one’s status activates similar brain networks to a threat on one’s life. Similarly, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward. As an executive coach, I help leaders  reflect on what is ideal, the journey they are taking, its impact and alternative approaches. By asking questions like the ones below using SCARF, leaders can identify how they might be inadvertently activating threat and reward based responses and what they can do instead.

Each week, ask yourself:

Status: what did I do to ensure my team members were not left guessing or assuming?

Certainty: how did I help my team members understand how I am also challenged by ambiguity? How did I break things down to be understandable?

Autonomy: have I been giving to much or too little autonomy in the new normal?

Relatedness: did I make it safe for people to share their thoughts and feelings, about what’s working and not working?

Fairness: did I accommodate differing needs while demonstrating fairness and equity?

Also ask yourself:

  • How do I know whether my thoughts about the above are  accurate? What evidence  do I have about what I am doing across these five domains? What might I be ignoring?
  • How can I find out others’ perspectives on these issues?

By actioning the five strategies in this article, leaders can effectively pivot their approach and help their teams function optimally as they manage the transition back to the workplace.  Having the sounding board support of an Executive Coach can also accelerate success.

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