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Building back better – 10 important considerations as we return to the workplace

face mask

To say the last 12 months have changed the way we work is, well, an understatement.  One way or another we’ve all had to become more agile, adaptable and willing to compromise. To find new ways of working as well as new spaces for working. We’ve had to look at how we communicate and engage when working remotely. How we manage difficult conversations when we can’t be in a room together. How we support our people’s wellbeing when we can’t see them. How we pivot, build back better and adapt our core processes to adapt to the changing landscape of business that now faces us for the first time.

We’ve had no map, or bestseller, to guide and inform us in our choices. No guru or mentor who’s ‘been there before’. We have literally been figuring it out as we go.

And now we find ourselves facing another phase of this disruption. The return to the workplace. I caution against saying return to normal, because for me, what was normal, will never be normal again.

Our workplace and the way we work has changed. We’ve embraced technology more than we’ve ever had to. We’ve discovered that presenteeism isn’t actually a concern. The opposite has turned out to be true for most people who’ve had to work from home. Without long commutes and no team leaving the office to nudge a departure home, we’ve seen people work longer and harder when working from home. All of which brings its own set of consequences.

So, we’re moving into a new normal and what an exciting opportunity this brings.  The chance to create what the new normal looks like.

I’ve been speaking to many leaders about this and categorically there are concerns:

  • The new learning we’ve lived through opens up opportunities for even more diversity in the workplace around how people want to work – how will we manage to accommodate everyone’s needs and still meet the demands of the business?
  • What if people don’t want to come back to the office at all?
  • Can we afford the tech we might need to invest in to cater for the diversity?
  • How do we manage people’s fear and anxiety about returning to work?
  • What if we’re opening ourselves up to more difficult conversations?

All of which may or may not be true. We won’t know for sure until we take a step in.

As with any experiment, it’s worth thinking about the boundaries and containment that will hold you in more certainty as you travel through the unknown.

Here are the top ten boundaries I’d encourage you to have in place around whatever way you decide to return to work as you create your new normal.

  1. Review and agree a common purpose

A healthy organisation has a compelling vision that speaks to hearts as well as minds. It’s a vision that is alive in the organisation, through every core process and interaction – the very bedrock of the culture.  It’s the guiding compass that keeps the ship heading in the right direction.  Now is the best time to review your vision (or create it if you haven’t already got it). A vision needs to have a strong connection to the pride that you carry for how you do business. What makes you unique and therefore (when done well) holds the DNA for your organisation. The very heartbeat that makes people want to go the extra mile.

Organisations that don’t have this in place often experience a disengaged workforce, high staff turnover and motivation levels that are low enough to burn out the most tenacious of people managers.  Avoid this stage at your peril. Create it with your people not as a management exercise.

You may even decide to create a sub purpose for the way in which you are going to consciously choose to reenter your organisation. Each mission needs a clear call to arms…

  1. Be clear on your values and agreed ways of working

If the vision and common purpose is your WHY, then the values are your HOW. There are so many ways to travel through uncertainty. Gather a sense of the way you say you do things (explicit) and also the way things are actually done around here (implicit). This is where verbs and doing words come into force. Do you want to embrace kindness, patience and pace in the way you return to work, or are you looking to be more disruptive, dynamic and high energy? Taking time out to review this (and what impact it will have on your people), will help you figure out what you need to have in place. What boundaries you already have around your ways of working and what else you might need to put in place.

Word of caution… you may need to check in with your existing culture before moving forward on this one. If your desires don’t match with your reality, the lack of integrity will keep everyone stuck. This kind of work is best done with a careful and respectful external facilitator to safely guide the process.

  1. Listen deep

In the coaching and facilitation world, we’re taught that there are three levels of listening:

  •  Listening to respond
  •  Listening to understand
  •  Listening beyond what’s being said

With this kind of employee transition, the art of listening is going to be your best friend if you want your workforce behind you. So often I meet leaders who are apprehensive about listening to their people (usually in case it means a difficult conversation about what’s possible has to follow). On the other hand, leaders who listen all the time but never act on any of it or communicate why they’ve chosen not to act, can create a demotivated workforce.

Your people know better than you what it’s really like to work here. Either in lockdown times or pre-lockdown. They are your eyes and ears on the ground. Being brave enough to really listen, especially around the topic of ‘what needs to change’ will be your biggest investment if you want to return to work well.

  1. Communication and engagement

Listening and communication go hand in hand. I always advise leaders to use the following simple methodology:

  • Communicate what you intend to do and why (WHY is very important, it helps people to settle and feel safe especially around changes they might not like so much)
  • Communicate what you’re doing (even if it’s the same thing as above… often things change or evolve in the process, so reminding people what you said you were going to do, and why and now what you’re actually doing, keeps them in the loop and helps them to feel informed)
  • Communicate how it went and what you learnt (including what you’ll try and do differently next time)

It’s also wise to consider a routine. Having a routine around communications provides another boundary to the uncertainty. I strongly recommend a combination of formal and informal for both individuals, teams and the whole business. Finding your own rhythm will come from ‘listening’ to what your people need. Over communicating can be just as disengaging to under communicating.

  1. Invest in additional support for your Managers

As with any transition, it’s the people managing the people that take the biggest brunt. Putting your people first will ensure your clients are well cared for. This means additional investment in support for your people managers.

  • Set out clear expectations around the role of managing others
  • What’s within their remit?
  • What are they expected to sign post elsewhere?
  • What support is available to them?
  • Who else in the business can support them should they need it?
  • What training and development might be helpful to them thriving in their roles?
  1. Find wise counsel from outside of your system

What I’ve noted through lockdown is that more organisations are choosing to invest in external support. There’s a real awakening to the benefit, nay necessity, to have an external wise advisor. Someone who is outside of your system and can therefore help those stuck in the system to see what they cannot already see, in order for them to move forward in a different and more resourceful way. To help them find the courage to face into what they may not have been willing to face into. Those organisations seem to be thriving through lockdown.

Consider the support you have. Are you willing and open to being challenged by a critical friend? Supported to see beyond what you thought was possible? Held accountable to the promises you hope to make?

  1. Build in innovation

There has never been a better time to dream big and innovate around ways of working. We literally have a clean slate to work with. What an exciting prospect this is (if you like change and uncertainty as do I). Now is the time to build into your culture, an attitude of trying and learning. You can’t get it wrong.

Look for small and big things that you can trial for a set period of time. Perhaps a phased return to work, a change of how you use the office space, new technology. Play with it, review it, learn, enhance it. Nothing needs to stay stagnant. As a human race we are facing uncertain times ahead and a healthy business should be able to work with that effectively.

  1. Step back to identify the opportunities in the bigger picture

As humans we are merely a small part of a much bigger eco system. If you really do want to use this opportunity to ‘build back better’, you need to be willing to step back and look at the bigger picture.  It’s both terrifying and exciting. We face much bigger world challenges than COVID19 has been, and that has felt like a big one. Working at a system level and being willing to look at the interconnectedness through both cold and warm data may just allow you to see an opportunity that will solve all our problems. I recommend you hire in an expert to facilitate this process so you can be within the process rather than holding the process. And if you want to get going now, consider this simple equation; how does the I relate to the WE relate to ALL OF US… and what can we do better for all?

I’m also a big fan of having a MISSION QUESTION rather than a MISSION STATEMENT. “How do we transition better?” is more engaging, emergent and offers space for creativity and community rather than “We will transition better,” which is restrictive, open to misinterpretation, and more narrow thinking.

  1. Put your oxygen mask on

The majority of us will have sat through those safety presentations on planes. The message is clear, if you are responsible for others, you must put your own oxygen mask on first. You are no good to your dependents if you are not well.

The same applies in the workplace and these returning to work times. We’re all a bit frazzled, overwhelmed, worn out, bored, frustrated and ready to burst.  We need to be taking care of our own wellbeing and role modelling those behaviours as leaders to our people.

Take time out to review your wellbeing needs (and the wellbeing needs of your organisation). This is a great time to audit where you are and what you need in order to thrive.  I always use whole person approach which includes physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and creative wellbeing. We are more than just our bodies. As are our organisations. They have structures, cultures, ways of working – each of which contribute either positively or negatively to you and your employee’s wellbeing.

  1. Celebrate the small wins

Now is not a time for taking great leaps. Research shows time and time again the value of reward and recognition. The impact of positive psychology. The importance of cultivating optimism in difficult times in order to maintain resilience. People need to be buoyed up by good news in amongst all the tough news.

Make sure you take time out to celebrate the smallest of wins. Be genuine, be heartfelt and be sincere.

It is time for small baby steps. Cultivating healthy mindsets need wins to bank. So, bank the small wins and take time to celebrate.

In summary

Being willing to take the first step is crucial. As well as an openness to get it wrong. It’s inevitable. We’re on new ground and as is the case for all new expeditions we have to be willing to try a hundred ways or more until you find the light bulb that works for your organisation. 

My invitation to you, is to review the top ten list and rate your organisation on a scale of ten against each point. Ten being the best it could be. Then pick one that needs work and will give you the biggest leap forward. Start there. Then pick your next one.

If you are keen to move your organisation forward yet it feels daunting to address these considerations, we are here to help. Whether you have a sense of where you want to begin, or you’d welcome support in working out the first step, contact jennifer@simplyjp.com to explore what will make the biggest difference now.

Good luck and do let me know what you discover on the journey in the comments below.