Addressing Return to Work Concerns in the New Normal
By Joe Mazzenga, Managing Director of NuBrick Partners
Businesses are resilient in adapting to work during COVID-19. While many sent employees to work from home at the start of the pandemic, some workers are now emerging from their makeshift home offices and returning to their workplaces, a bit nervous, perhaps, about the uncertainties of their renewed proximity to coworkers. The return to work, or rather, “return to office,” since employees have been working, albeit remotely, all along, will make it clear just how much the workplace has changed, and what’s remained the same.
The COVID pandemic has demonstrated that remote work is at least possible. But will companies that had perhaps been resistant to telecommuting before the pandemic, continue to allow employees to work remotely at least some of the time? That answer may depend as much on the emotional wellbeing of the workforce, as on the spread of the virus itself.
Even as organizations are ready to bring back their workforce, some employees may not be ready to come back. Some may feel uneasy about being in such close proximity with others in an office environment with a lot of people around. Companies can allay those fears through staggered work schedules and enhanced office cleaning protocols but should be open to the option for employees to continue working remotely.
Employers should also be empathetic to other challenges that their employees may have. Some may be managing additional childcare responsibilities as a result of the lockdown. Others may have some form of immunodeficiency or be caring for someone who does.
Concerns resulting from the pandemic remain a real challenge, even as many organizations begin to ramp up their capacity and productivity. One concern is that the workforce may be psychologically compromised and fatigued from stressors, anxieties and disruptions that the crisis created for them personally and professionally.
As employees begin to return to their office environments, it’s vital that their psychological ramifications are continually recognized and identified by their leaders. Leaders need to cultivate resilience and coping mechanisms within themselves, their teams, and their organizations in order to persevere through and beyond this crisis. To build resilience, leaders need to be responsive to three key behaviors:
- Demonstrate empathy – explicitly engage in conversations with team members that provide the platform to discuss their concerns and challenges and take the opportunity to validate those concerns.
- Acknowledge emotions – the identification of emotions that are detrimental to a person’s wellbeing or productivity is vital for recovery. You have to name it to tame it. If you ignore emotions, they can grow out of control.
- Increase connection – enhancing community and connectivity, especially with off-premise employees, will allow organizations to build a foundation for resilience. The transparent and vulnerable connections that people must make during the recovery are critical.
During this challenging and dynamic time when people are inundated by three crises – the coronavirus, the economy, and social unrest – leaders must listen, acknowledge, validate, and support their employees who are struggling emotionally. Most importantly, they should remember that empathy is a very powerful tool in their arsenal.
Here are four ways that leaders can create a safe atmosphere in their workplace:
- Go first and show vulnerability about your employee’s feelings and concerns. That will normalize their feelings and reactions of those around them who think they may need to act strong and show up “fine,” when in fact may be struggling personally or professionally.
- Be deliberate and ask these candid questions: “How are you feeling about all that is occurring?” And, “How are you doing right now relative to the emotions you’re experiencing from all that is happening?” Asking these specific questions, not simply “How are you?”, which tends to be comfortably responded to with pleasantries like, “Fine,” when fine is often not the case, helps draw out an authentic response that opens the path to healing.
- Actively listen and engage in these questions. Then, provide a space to listen and pay close attention both to what’s being shared verbally, as well as non-verbal cues. Then acknowledge to demonstrate that the leadership team is working to understand these concerns.
- Validate their feelings. Especially with all that is happening, it’s critically important to convey that your team members’ fears and worries are heard.
- Offer support for employees that may not be coping well.
The importance of establishing and nurturing a psychologically safe atmosphere is more important now than ever. Leaders need to provide this safe space for team members to interact and remain productive in a “new normal.”
Safe conversations don’t come easy. They need to be cultivated and managed, and employees must be encouraged and supported to have open conversations where they can express their concerns or fears.
Leaders must understand that tensions are running high right now and not all people are at their best. They’re balancing the needs of the organization with those that are personal and focused on their families, wearing patience thin and affecting decision making. Leaders need to extend grace and understanding and ensure that co-workers do as well.
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