For so long now much of the world has been in “survive not thrive” mode, and we are not out of the woods yet.  Distant and vague predictions within the scientific community that COVID-19 in its various mutations may well return and indeed be part of all of our lives, in all our countries for some years to come is now a stark and present reality.  This makes for a difficult challenge since returning to the workplace was meant to be a sign of things returning “to a new normal” but uncertainty and concern remains for all of us.

Nevertheless, employees will begin making the transition back to the workplace, joining millions of the working population who have been ‘on the front line’ as NHS employees, in our supermarkets, delivery drivers, and other places of work.  Now it is the turn of those who have worked from home or been on furlough these past 12 months and more to begin to re-enter into their offices and other workplaces.  This is a milestone journey for many, and one that they will take with their colleagues, side by side.

So much will depend on everyone drawing from their inner resources, their well of personal resilience.  But a searching spotlight will be on leaders and managers during this period who have a formidable task to push forward and start the long journey on that road to recovery, whilst connecting patiently and persistently with employees and to go out of their way as never before to listen, to understanding individual needs, fears and worries, to work together through the ongoing uncertainty.

It is no use searching in vain for “the way things were” – good, bad or indifferent there is no looking back.  Re-engagement and re-calibration will be a significant part of the ‘return to the workplace’ strategy.

Re-engagement will be both exhilarating and exhausting.  Exhilarating because it allows us to look with fresh eyes and listen with deep attention to what our customers, our stakeholders, our work colleagues and our families now need from us, as well as giving ourselves the opportunity to express our own needs.   Count on it as a “fresh eyes and ears review”.  Things we have taken for granted can now be treasured far more, people we have almost ignored because we know them so well can be almost new to us as we discover afresh what their world is now like.  Customers will be looking to us for something better, not a return to the past, and will attach more strongly to us if they feel that we are on their wavelength and committed to a new way of working together.    If we had become cynical and jaded by the sheer sameness of the day-in-day out humdrum of our working lives, then we now have a chance to be a change agent and to see things differently in ourselves and in others.

Exhausting because that entails new learning, more time getting to know people in new ways, far more patience with ourselves as well as with others in adjusting and working in changed ways.   It will not come easy to us and in fact early reports suggest that some people are finding it hard to return to the social demands of the workplace having for so long been in their own family bubble with limited contact with others.

Leaders and managers know that an important aspect of their role is to create a safe physical and psychological space in which their teams can work.   The duty of care is far-reaching and includes all aspects of employee welfare and more than anything else we shall see very clearly that although we have all been through the shared collective event of the pandemic, how we have experienced it and how it has affected us varies enormously.

Wellbeing is a subjective experience, and we know from empirical wellbeing studies that “one size does not fit all”.  We have to understand employees on the personal and individual level.   There is no such thing as “collective empathy” readily available to hard-pressed managers that suits everyone at all times.       Really understanding each person and avoiding simplistic assumptions about how people are feeling is incredibly time-consuming and comes when that sense of urgency, of getting up and running quickly again, is most demanding.

There is a Latin phrase, the motto in later years of the Medici family, “Festine lente” – which means quite literally “hasten slowly”.    Sounds like a contradiction in terms, but as we re-engage and re-calibrate post-pandemic then we shall find that time spent listening, watching, sharing our hopes and fears may actually assist us in the long run to build up the momentum and that sense of oneness we need to achieve future success.    The danger is that a few people, leaders and managers in particular, rush ahead quickly chivvying and chiding others to “get a move on”.  Some try to keep up, others drag along reluctantly so that rather than being all together we find many drifting further apart.

Apply our knowledge of “change management”, by supporting our teams and in turn being supported in a united and determined way together.   Shared understanding, respect and patience with each other is far more likely to bring us to our end goal.

Managers and leaders need to slow down, to be alongside people and to check in frequently and patiently with each person.   This process also allows managers to create a more agile environment where frequent checking-in, re-setting expectations and monitoring how things are going becomes the new normal.  Share plans, make those plans together and them implement them with that shared understanding and shared commitment.

But, of course, be prepared for the unexpected.  That at least is one thing we have in common from the early days of COVID-19 where we were all taken unawares and recognised that whilst plans are useful, essential in fact, so too is flexibility and a willingness to revisit and adapt as and when is needed.  It is now that we need leaders to lead and to manage and managers to manage and to lead.

Providing clear, honest and open messages has never been more important than now.   Everyone wants to know what is going on, where they stand, what is happening next.  There will be rumour, gossip, endless speculation – that is natural.   As a leader or manager, it can be hard to say “I do not know what is happening yet” but if that is the honest position then simply state it and share with colleagues openly that sometimes we simply do not know what will happen next.   Bringing them into the uncertainties of leadership helps to create more realistic and more mature expectations.

Here are five practical tips for managers:

  1. Focus on listening skills: the temptation is always having something to say but flip it around and encourage employees to give their views instead. Resist being the only voice.
  2. Make “I don’t know” a positive response. Build up the credibility of what you do know and encourage a culture which moves away from rumour, to feeling comfortable sharing uncertainty.
  3. Be a ‘nearby leader’ even when you are not able to be physically present. Make yourself more accessible and visible whenever you can
  4. Keep conversations shorter, but more frequent. Quick, regular and informal check-ins will help employees feel they can reach you and that you are available, and it will give you a good pulse of what is going on and how people are feeling.
  5. Be inclusive and listen to the stories from those whose voice is seldom heard.  Make connecting with people an important part of your job. Encourage each and every employee to voice their views and know you will listen to them.

In a survey by healthcare provider Optum[1], companies throughout the world who invested in health and wellbeing programmes saw increased levels of engagement (58%), productivity (66%) and decreased absenteeism (39%).   Never has this been more important and managers and leaders have such a key part to play.

And in a recent article by Engage For Success[2] this sentiment said it all “Tomorrow’s leader & manager needs to be a mentor, a coach, a supporter, a resource gatherer, an enabler – someone who can inspire, engage, enthuse and develop their people”.

We do not need to be a super-hero, but we do need to be alongside others as we navigate our way into an uncertain, different future.

[1] 2019 International Wellness in the Workplace Benchmark Study

[2] The impact leaders & leadership should seek to have on the world that comes next