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5 Ways to Support Your People When Offices Reopen

May 26, 2020 — Written by Stefanie Tignor PhD

When offices reopen, business as usual will be impossible. 

Norms will have shifted, silos will have sprung up, and your people will still be fearful for their safety. Some members of your team may not even be able to physically return to offices.

Chances are employees will also be worried about their future at your organization. By now, all of us know good people who have lost their jobs. That means even the members of your team who are excited to return to the office will feel a deep sense of job insecurity. They’ll continue to ask themselves: “Is my job safe? Does the company see me as valuable enough to keep around?”

Left unchecked, this kind of stress and uncertainty can create a crippling culture of competitiveness. When people feel insecure, they’re more likely to undermine each other and less likely to engage in organizational citizenship behaviors, like taking on an unglamorous task or helping someone out with a project. 

As a leader, how can you combat this insecurity? What steps can you take to reunite and reassure your teams? While no one can predict the future, behavioral science can provide you with a guide for how to best support your people when they return to the office.

Involve people in key decisions 

As you put together plans for the next few months, send a quick note to someone on your team and ask, “What do you think?”

Those four simple words can remind someone that you value their contribution, and will give them a renewed sense of ownership over their work. It’s a simple way to help people feel valued and connected.

Make yourself and your emotions visible

Research shows that when leaders show vulnerability, they increase feelings of trust within their teams. Some level of emotional expression can combat lingering feelings of insecurity by helping people feel less isolated and more comfortable being themselves. (Stay authentic, though – it’s easy to separate genuine emotions from acting.) 

One way to create space for emotional expression is to open up a bit yourself. Even something as simple as starting a meeting with, “I know this is a difficult time for everyone. I’ve certainly been feeling it and am finding it much harder to focus than usual some days.” can go a long way.

Establish a new short-term mission

It may be tempting to rely on your company’s overarching mission statement as a way to inspire people, but chances are it might not be as inspiring as it was pre-crisis. Instead, write a new mission statement for the next 1-3 months. 

Your short-term vision should acknowledge the ever-evolving nature of the situation while still giving your team something concrete to rally around. Your short-term mission could be to drive a key valued outcome, like customer retention or satisfaction, or to pour all of your energy into just one of your 3 or 4 projects.

Combat inequities and support inclusion

COVID-19 has impacted all of us, but it hasn’t impacted us equally. In fact, it’s exacerbated existing inequities, disproportionately affecting members of underrepresented groups and deepening the digital divide. That means leaders need to invest more in inclusion than ever. 

As you consider when and how to bring people back into the office, check in with your Employee Resource Groups and solicit a diversity of opinions. What constraints are employees with (and without) children facing? What concerns do members of your team with disabilities and health concerns have? Make sure to hear from a wide range of perspectives, including from members of historically underrepresented groups. 

Allow space for lower productivity but higher innovation

Here’s the truth: in the first few weeks of being back in the office, your team won’t be as productive as they were before the crisis. Putting an emphasis on output may work in the short-term (especially because employees are afraid of losing their jobs) but will quickly lead to burnout and mistrust. Instead, try to identify and reinforce the innovative practices your team put into place while working from home.

Ask your team to discuss the new habits they developed in recent months, and to make a list of the ones they would like to see continue. Maybe people started posting daily updates to Slack, removing the need for a long, status-update-filled meeting. Maybe they made their calendars more visible, increasing transparency and empathy for each others’ workloads. By listening to your employees and learning what worked in their time at home, you can help your team emerge from the crisis more collaborative and innovative than before. 

Returning to offices won’t be a simple, straightforward process. But by taking the steps outlined above, leaders can help their people better navigate the transition.

Dr. Stefanie Tignor is a People Scientist at Humu and former professor of Consumer Psychology at Northeastern University. She first presented these ideas in our webinar series on Organizational Resilience

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