Care and connection: Four ways to set yourself apart as a leader

It’s no secret that mental health and well-being is a concern. As teams head back to the office after working remotely for so long, how are you going to show them you care? How are you going to build new connections? We’ve put together 4 original suggestions to help set you apart as a leader

September 1, 2021

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

“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: 

1. Find out what they care about (Hint: It’s probably different than before COVID) 

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:   

  • Group settings. If someone is uncomfortable in a group setting, do we adjust the rules or adapt somehow for that one person? 
  • Masking. How do you accommodate the person who feels more comfortable having people wear masks versus someone who wants to get back to normal? 
  • Vaccination. How do you manage differing (and often strong) opinions on vaccination status? 
  • Coming to work sick. What do you do when someone comes to work with a cold? Many people didn’t like it before - now it’s bound to freak people out. 
  • Hybrid meetings. How do we level the playing field to ensure equitable participation when some people are working for home and others are in the office? 

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.   

2. Recognize everyone’s different experiences

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.  

3. Use the 4 P’s  

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: 

  • Identify a shared PURPOSE. 
  • Agree on the PROBLEM. 
  • Make a PLAN. 
  • Lay out the PRINCIPLES 

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. 

4. Find simple ways to show them you care

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. 

Take action now 

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. 

Written by
Robin Parsons

Robin has more than twenty-five years of experience as an effective leader and strategic thinker. She helps organizations have better conversations that help them work together more effectively.

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Parsons Dialogue is based in Calgary, Canada, serving clients across North America. We design and facilitate strategic processes that help teams collaborate with clarity and confidence.

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