“How are you?”
“How’s your family?”
“Have you taken any vacation this summer?”
Those are basic social pleasantries we regularly exchange with peers and colleagues. This year there’s a new question to add to the mix:
“When are you heading back to the office?”
As fall approaches, many companies have plans in place to bring employees back to the office - in one form or another. It’s no secret that overall mental health and well-being has suffered during the pandemic. That’s why it’s more important than ever to demonstrate care and connection - as leaders, employees and peers.
We have to talk about what we need from each other to feel good about getting back to the office. Yes, this is important to keep teams engaged and productive. But more importantly, it’s to make sure they feel safe. To show them they matter. And to make sure they have a sense of control over their life at work.
Here are four ways to show your team you care as they return to the office:
Before you can show someone you care, you have to figure out what they care about. And the answers are likely to be different now than they were before the pandemic.
After 18 months of COVID, emotions are high. Opinions are strong. Everything is uncertain. It’s a complex situation that has the potential to create a hostile environment. Difficult new issues are on the table, including:
This is not straight forward stuff. If left untouched, these issues will become a burning ember of resentment. By finding out what people care about up-front, you can address them before they become raging infernos of anger. Or people simply quit.
Everyone is coming back to the office with different experiences from the last 18 months. Maybe someone lost a loved one, or is still recovering from long-term effects after getting sick with COVID-19. Others may be dealing with mental health issues due to isolation, or anxiety around leaving their home.
Recognizing that your personal experience is not the same as others’ is a good place to start. Listening will also be key. While you may not be enthralled with Kelsey’s story about her great aunt who was in the hospital, or Jack’s likely exaggerated recap of his minor case of COVID-19, they are telling you these stories because they were impacted in some way.
These conversations are important because they will help you build a better understanding of what people have been through. Where they are coming from. From there, you can - together - design standards, protocols and agreements around how to work together in a way that shows respect and care for each other.
Figuring out how to demonstrate care and connection in a way that resonates with people is a process.
We use a framework called the “4 Ps” to help us figure out where to start, where you want to go and how to get there:
This is a process we often work through at the front end of projects, or when a company is building and growing. Now, even for the most established organizations, it needs to be revisited as we return to the office during a global pandemic.
What are the values we hold around each other in this strange time so we can operate respectfully and kindly toward each other? What values are we reaching for? What behaviours are we going to practice? How are we going to hold each other accountable?
Times have changed. The way we work together has changed. Your company’s values and norms might need to change too. Taking another look at these principles in the context of these strange times will be critical to once again functioning as a team that is connected and cares about each other.
A bowl of jelly beans on the desk. Donuts for the staff. Wine on a Friday afternoon. Before the pandemic, different organizations had unique ways of showing their teams that they are valued. When everyone was sent home, we saw lots of creative ways companies and leaders demonstrated that care from a distance. From virtual cookie decorating to home lunch deliveries.
We might not be able to have the communal jelly bean jar anymore, but we can still get creative with some simple ways to show employees we care. How about individually packaged candy bars? Instead of big team lunches, could everyone get off an hour early on a Friday?
This all goes back to the 4 Ps, your organization’s culture and finding a way to make it fair for everyone.
If you do these things well now, it can contribute to a really strong, caring and connected team. If you don’t do anything about it, you as a leader may find yourself navigating one petty issue at a time over the next several months. Ask yourself: Do you want to play “whack-a-mole” with complaints? Or would you rather take pre-emptive action and develop solutions together that everyone understands, and hopefully agrees on.
We know people will be returning to the office with legitimate anxiety and surveys have shown many are prepared to quit. If you can appreciate this is not business as usual, but a significant change, you will view and approach the situation differently.
This is not an easy conversation for leaders to have. If you’re not sure about it, get help. This is what we do as facilitators. We can help you figure out how to have the conversation, who to have the conversation with, and what your outcomes should be.
We know these issues are coming. Take action before they explode. It is a bit of work, and maybe a small investment up front. But it’s a small price to pay to avoid conflict down the road.