Key lessons in returning to the workplace - Colin Lamb

Over the past 16-months the pandemic has forced employers to adapt to extremes never considered before, and it has taken strong leadership to steer things in the right direction.

However, as restrictions ease and we all prepare to return to the workplace, we must adapt again to changes that will last beyond the pandemic – and it falls again on leaders to navigate their people on the road to recovery.

Over the past 16 months, organisations have changed immeasurably, and so have the demands placed those in the driving seat. What has become clear is that ina crisis, the leadership approach must change too.

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Let’s break this down into three phases: emergency – the pandemic; return – getting people back into the swing of ‘normal’ working; and recovery – what happens next.

In the emergency phase, leaders had to move to the frontline and fight the fires. However, in the return phase, leaders must step back and spend more time supporting their teams.

In recovery, leaders need to strike a balance between guiding a smooth return while maintaining the pressure to renew and rethink the future.

So what does this mean for leaders in the ‘new normal’ and what should they be thinking about as we emerge from the pandemic?

1. Recalibrate what you do and why you do it.

This is a crucial step – often overlooked – but an easy win. Re-tell the story about your organisation and why it exists, what it does and what is important. Many people have now re-evaluated their personal priorities and whether they are still aligned with those of their organisation. Spending time here helps everyone to get ‘back on the bus’, know the destination, how they will get there, understand what seat they are in and how they can contribute to success. Don’t overlook the obvious just because you know the way ahead, and if you don’t know the way, keep listening, talking and asking for contribution.

2. Rethink how work gets done.

Clearly, the pandemic changed the way we work forever. For some this may be minor, but for others this could mean a change of role entirely. This is an opportunity. Don’t slip back into your old organisational structure – you need to better understand how your business needs to operate and then think about what that means for the roles required and the people you have. Capitalise by resetting the organisation and reviewing if you have the right structure for now – not the past. Include your team in this. It helps people shape the right structure and roles, and they often have a better understanding of how things work day-to-day. This helps identify where gaps and development areas are in knowledge, skills and behaviours that are necessary going forward.

3. Elevate your authentic self (NB this is key).

It can’t all be about the business strategy and structure. Leaders must be explicitly authentic. What does this mean? Well, leaders need to role model vulnerability for a start. Why? Because everyone is probably feeling a little vulnerable and nervous about the future of work, and the truth is no one really knows what the coming months and years have in store. Leaders need to be honest, transparent and show vulnerability. They need to connect with their human-side and be able to express their feelings and display emotions for others to understand that ‘it is okay, not to be okay’.

We have had to immerse ourselves in being more resilient and focus on our wellbeing over the last 16 months – this cannot and should not stop. We need to ensure we are putting our own lifejackets on before helping others. Leaders need to look after themselves, to be able to look after others. To do this, we can ensure we are booking in regular maintenance and re-fuel time so we don’t burn out. There is a fine line, and leaders need to know themselves better to manage their impulse control and emotions to create a safe psychological environment for people to feel they can come forward with concerns or questions.

4. Navigate your people back to work

Going back into the workplace should not be overlooked. This is a BIG deal for most people – especially if the set-up has changed. We all know the importance of how people see their physical place of work and why some have battled with the introduction of hot-desking in recent years. You should create a staged campaign here to get people excited about going back into the workplace (once it is safe to do so). Pilot different ideas and bring people in to help test and ask for their feedback. Re-think why you are asking people to return to the office and consider how you can still offer flexibility for teams and individuals who have improved productivity from working from home.

For most, the move to digital and working from home (or anywhere) has really elevated industries – creating an opportunity to rescope how the office is used and how to work in a hybrid way.

We would also recommend ‘re-orientating’ workforces on their return. I don’t know how many people we have spoken to that have forgotten how the printer works or how to set the alarm. Going back over the basics and bringing teams in to go through a re-introduction to the workplace shouldn’t be missed. It will help create a buzz and start reforming relationships again. Top tip – take the small stuff seriously.

5. Promote ‘out with the old and in with the new’

Leaders need to encourage and role model change. Recovery isn’t about going back and slipping into old habits. This is an incredible opportunity to assess pre-pandemic routines and behaviours, then determine which ones serve the organisation, and which ones are best left in the past. “Renewal not return” is the term used by leaders such as Siemens Chairman Jim Hagemann. Leaders who have created a psychologically safe culture with their teams will be able to progress, promoting and rewarding others to help do things differently, faster and better. This is when you can get creative and innovative with teams – form huddles and create the environment for creative problem solving and looking at ways to improve processes and workflows. This is pivotal to your people feeling part of and contributing to the change your organisation needs to be a success. It is not about the leader having all the ideas or solutions – it is about creating the right culture and environment for your people to take ownership and accountability here and bring their own ideas of how they can improve productivity.

Colin Lamb is founder of Connect Three, a Scottish consultancy which helps businesses improve through their people

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