Leadership and the return to the office

What leaders say and do next will set the tone for the weeks and months that follow.

“It’s great to welcome you back to the office now that we’ve all been vaccinated, and the pandemic is under control! Take a few minutes to get settled, and then we’ll catch up in the conference room.”

Leaders around the world will soon be saying something like this. Their people will listen attentively — but apprehensively — as they get ready to resume their old roles in a new world.

What leaders say and do next will set the tone for the weeks and months that follow. Wondering how you can best lead in these critical moments? Here are strategies you can use to put your people at ease.

The power of connection

We are social creatures who need healthy relationships to thrive. After an isolating experience like the pandemic, we will all need time to reconnect with our colleagues. Renewing these bonds is of paramount importance. Allowing your team to do this will create the environment that lets them find their footing.

As a leader, what can you do?

Lower your short-term expectations for work productivity when everyone returns. Give them the time they need to become comfortable. Don’t worry if they spend a seemingly inordinate amount of time chatting and laughing. They are making up for months of isolation. Reconnecting with friends and colleagues is part of the healing process.

Holding informal get-togethers is one way you can help everyone reconnect. Your goal is to create a place where they can share their experiences from the pandemic. 

We recommend using these tips to make these gatherings uplifting and reassuring for everyone:

  • Participate actively. People are much more likely to share if they see their leader is doing the same.
  • Give everyone an opportunity to speak. Assigning time slots ensures that your more reserved teammates have an equal chance to share. 
  • Pass around a talking stick or some object that draws attention to the speaker. This is a great visual reminder that everyone gets a turn.
  • Respect everyone’s time. Everyone is probably feeling a bit self-conscious and vulnerable, and interruptions are likely to make them retreat. Let them freely share — without interruption.

Create psychological safety

Your team members are probably carrying scars from the pandemic. The loss of loved ones, lockdowns, disruptions to familiar routines — these are just a few experiences that will have left them feeling somewhere between distressed and traumatized.

This is not an exaggeration: COVID has created a mental health crisis. A June 2020 report from the CDC found that 40.9 percent of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder.

Creating psychological safety is one way you can help soothe concerns. Dr. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School who coined psychological safety, defines it as, “A climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves.” Edmondson further elaborated that it includes, “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up …  It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

To create an environment of psychological safety:

  • Show you care. Now is the time for empathy. Given what we’ve all gone through, everyone can use some kindness. 
  • Be humble. Let your people know that you don’t have answers to every question. Be confident enough to be unsure.
  • Commit to growth. A good leader is devoted to learning and changing for the better. Now is your moment.
  • Be open and candid. People appreciate it when you don’t hide your feelings. They’re likely to feel closer to you and more engaged if you are honest about your struggles.
  • Be appreciative. Show gratitude for your team having the courage to be candid. 

Paint an optimistic picture

One of the fundamental responsibilities of leaders is painting an inspiring vision of the future. This is even more important in times of crisis. Leaders should identify a few positive aspects of the next phase of work and the company’s prospects, and generously share them with the team.  

Sometimes that’s easy, especially when the company is thriving. Other times, it’s much more challenging. But even in dark times, there are positive messages to share about teamwork, customer service or the noble fight for survival.  

Be positive

Emotions are contagious. Our ability to influence others’ emotional states increases with our authority.

Act fearful or worried, and people are likely to become the same. Unchecked anxiety can create an emotional stampede. The good news is that positive emotions are equally contagious. Be cheerful and positive, and your associates are likely to follow suit.

As a leader, look for ways to express positive emotions like pride, appreciation and excitement. Upon their return to the office, your team will look to you for cues — your speech, eyes, posture—to see how you’re feeling. Be mindful of how you conduct yourself. And be natural.

Organizational scientist Sunnie Giles offers a perspective apropos for the moment: “From a neuroscience perspective, making sure that people feel safe on a deep level should be job number one for leaders.”

Holding frequent one-on-one meetings is an effective way to get people to share their concerns. Here are some questions you can ask to discover how people are feeling about their return:

  • How are you feeling about coming back to the office?
  • What are your concerns about the future?
  • What did you like about working from home? 
  • What did you miss about being in the office?
  • What are some work-from-home habits you want to bring to the office? 
  • Is there anything else you want me to know?

Reach out to the undecided

Some of your people may prefer working from home. From their perspective, a return to the office may be stress-inducing.

Broach the subject with your team members before they return to the office. Find out how they really feel. If you have the authority, work with these individuals to create a balance between remote and in-office work.

The return to the office is a unique moment for leaders to help their people. Rise to the challenge by giving them the support they need to thrive.