Return to Work
How to Get Back After Lockdown
When your team members have been working apart for a long time – or maybe not working at all – how do you bring them back together when your workplace reopens?
Before the coronavirus pandemic, only a few organizations had to deal with this problem – after a natural disaster, for example. But now it's a challenge that many employers around the world must face.
Some decisions will be dictated by industry regulations and regional or national laws. And every organization – and every individual – will have their own specific considerations and concerns. But there are a few general principles that you can use to ease the transition.
In this article, we outline those principles and explore strategies for managers and individuals to get back on track as quickly as possible.
Different Experiences of Leaving Lockdown
Any prolonged break from "business as usual" affects people in different ways – even those within the same organization or team.
Some people may have been furloughed, given new duties, or started working remotely for the first time. Former co-workers may have been laid off.
Many will have struggled with personal worries and professional challenges – juggling working from home with childcare responsibilities, for example. For some people, the period will have been defined by the loss of a loved one.
But for others, this period may have brought some benefits, such as less time spent commuting and more with family. For some of us the "pause" may even have been rejuvenating, giving us new goals, ideas and perspectives.
It's important to bear all of these different attitudes in mind as you prepare to bring your team back to work.
It's vital to balance speed with care. Of course, you want to regain momentum as soon as possible, but take care not to make rash or unsafe decisions that you may regret later.
Getting Your Organization Back to Work
Many organizations have suffered during lockdown and have a lot of ground to regain. Most workplaces will look different for some time to come, and some things may never go back to the way they were.
Rebooting after a long period of separation and disruption takes a clear plan of action – so here are six factors to consider as you formulate yours.
1. Consider Your Stakeholders
Many different sets of people have an interest in this next phase. Carrying out a Stakeholder Analysis will remind you who they all are (your team members, customers, suppliers, the local community, and so on), so that you can consult with them as appropriate.
Stakeholders may hold opposing views. Some might be keen for a quick return to "normal," while others will be more cautious – aim to gather information on all of your stakeholders' positions, so that you can feed it into your decisions.
Empathy Mapping can be a useful way to understand stakeholder attitudes, how to balance different needs, and how to reassure those that are anxious about returning to work.
2. Reflect on Your Values
If your organization's values are clear, you'll find it easier to resolve even complex dilemmas.
A commitment to the community, for example, will mean that you take the safety concerns of local people particularly seriously. Or a focus on the well-being of your people may influence your decisions on flexible working.
So, if you have a mission statement or vision statement, use it to direct your decisions.
In addition, practicing Ethical Leadership will make it easier for you to tackle difficult dilemmas and create a return-to-work plan that you can and feel proud of and people can trust.
3. Be Bold and Creative
Returning from this enforced break could be a golden opportunity to start doing things differently.
Take a fresh look at your options, assess the resources at your disposal, and allow time and space for creative thinking as you plan your "new normal" at work.
4. Use Strategic Tools
This is also a time for strategic thinking. And there are plenty of useful tools for giving structure and strength to your plans.
For example, many organizations will need to tighten their belts. Zero-Based Budgeting could secure your financial survival and put you back on the road to profitability and growth.
And, as you learn more about how your suppliers have been affected by the pandemic, Carter's 10 Cs of Supplier Evaluation will help you to make the best choices going forward.
Take a look at our Strategy Tools section to see which tools are appropriate for your organization.
5. Communicate Your Plans
Whatever decisions you make about getting your people back to work, it's essential to communicate them clearly and effectively to everyone involved.
Anxieties and rumors can spread in an atmosphere of uncertainty, especially if only a few people seem to be "in the loop." But if people understand what you've decided to do, why you're doing it, and how it affects them, they are usually much happier to accept what's happening.
The 7 Cs of Communication is a useful checklist when attempting to convey key information. If you get this right, your people will know how to return to the workplace safely – and also that their organization cares about keeping them informed.
6. Rebuild Your Team
Any team that's been out of face-to-face contact for a while may need some time to "gel" again.
Cog's Ladder is a useful tool for understanding how people move from the "Polite Phase," when they start to become reacquainted with their teammates, through to the "Espirit Phase," where they return to their creative and productive peak.
Including some Teambuilding Exercises and Activities in your plans (when it's safe to do so) can accelerate this process and get your team feeling fully connected again.
Some team members may request new working arrangements as they return from lockdown – either for the short term or permanently. This could be because their personal circumstances have changed, which will either take a while to reverse, or which they hope can remain in place.
Our article, Flexible Working, outlines some of the options that you might want to discuss, and the steps to take before you agree on a new working arrangement.
The Emotional Impact of Going Back to Work
Your people will likely experience a wide range of emotions on returning to work.
For many, return will provide a fresh set of challenges – especially if they're worried about their well-being, or they disagree with the way the situation is being managed. Feelings such as anxiety, frustration and anger may come out, and the workplace will likely be a more volatile place than usual for a while.
Our article, Managing Emotion in Your Team, explains how managers can use emotional clues to spot and address particular difficulties.
Some people may just need time and space to let their feelings settle, while others may need additional support. Give them the chance to talk through their feelings in private. Be sensitive to their needs and discuss the help that's available. But be prepared to remind them of their professional responsibilities, if necessary.
Prepare in advance for difficult conversations, particularly if you need to deliver bad news, such as layoffs or budget cuts. Remember your duty of care, and stand up for your people whenever it's appropriate to do so.
Taking steps to improve your own emotional intelligence will make you better able to gauge the emotional "temperature" of your team – and to decide on the best ways to look after their interests.
6 Tips for A Successful Return to Work
Every individual has a role to play in making the return to work a success. Regardless of your job title or position, here are six things that you can do to make the transition as smooth as possible while looking after yourself, too.
1. Recognize and Manage Your Emotions
Give yourself time to adjust to being back at work. But also be willing to ask for help if you need it – and don't pretend that things are OK if they're not.
Many of us share common reactions to change, so be prepared for them. Read our article, Coping With Change, for more on this.
2. Be Flexible
Many organizations have had to make radical changes in response to the pandemic, so it's important to be open-minded.
Our article How to Be Flexible in the Workplace outlines how to respond quickly and positively to change, while retaining your core values.
3. Manage Your Boundaries
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance will be more important than ever.
By knowing and guarding your boundaries you'll be able to protect your time, energy and emotions while still doing your job well and helping others with their needs.
See our articles How to Avoid Generosity Burnout and Supporting a Friend or Co-Worker Suffering From Stress for more advice on looking after yourself and others.
4. Express Yourself
Talking to family, friends and co-workers will help you to think through any concerns. Discuss your needs with your manager, but also talk to your allies in the workplace for ongoing support.
Resist groupthink as this can prevent you from responding in the way that's right for you.
5. Boost Your Coping Mechanisms
This is a time to focus on your well-being, and to do everything you can to stay healthy, energetic and positive. Eating, exercising and sleeping well are more important than ever.
Carry out a Core Self-Evaluation. This can help you to monitor your mental and emotional health, and to recognize the areas that may need a boost.
6. Learn and Grow
This is a time of great challenges. But it may also be a chance to reassess your priorities and to start living and working in positive new ways.
Use any lessons you've learned about yourself during lockdown to your advantage and be alert to opportunities – particularly those that will equip you with new experiences and skills. And if you had some creative inspiration while you were away, maybe now's the time to turn your idea into reality!
When your organization or team returns to work after a long absence, the process has to be handled with care. Your people will experience a wide range of emotions during this new phase – and you'll need to manage them sensitively.
As you make your plans to return, consult with stakeholders and assess their priorities and needs. Be guided by your organization's core values, but keep an open mind about potential new ways of working.
Make use of strategic tools as you get your organization back in business. Communicate your plans clearly to all concerned, and look for ways to make your team feel connected again.
Take steps to look after yourself as you return to work, too. Prepare yourself emotionally and protect your boundaries, but be flexible enough to cope with changes.
Seek support from others, boost your physical and mental well-being, and seize any new opportunities to learn and grow.
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