by Lourdes Coss, MPA, CPPO

Some organizations are gradually welcoming back employees to begin the process of “today’s normal.” Leaders should recognize that it’s been a year since the world shut down for business.  A year is enough time to anchor new habits.  There is hope in the air and eagerness to see the pandemic as a thing of the past.  Many people had a year to find new ways of performing the work without stepping foot in the office.  For this reason, people may need some time to recover and readjust.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” –Socrates

Except for frontline personnel and essential services, we were all sheltered in place.  To shelter in place meant total isolation for some people.  For others, it meant designing ad-hoc workspaces, distractions,  and sharing technology.  Regardless of the situation, these shifts presented challenges that may have lasting consequences.

Change in an instant.  After the immediate shock of the unthinkable, many found ways to stay connected while others’ felt their walls close in on them.  Parents became teachers until schools ramped up to virtual learning. Working from home blurred the line between family and work environments.  In some cases, technology and internet bandwidth challenged the family members’ effectiveness in fulfilling their role as employees or students.  

We postponed or cancelled celebrations like graduations, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, childbirth, engagements, baptisms, and others.  Participation or not in less happy events also impacted people emotionally.   It is possible that the inability to participate fully in these types of events and make lasting memories further contributed to the increased stress. 

Changed workforce. Some organizations are starting to require employees’ physical presence at the office and leaders should keep in mind that employees may bring new worries and issues to the workplace.  The “go back to the office” is not a general mandate.  Given that organizations decide what’s best for them, their decisions impact employees’ lives, particularly if those decisions do not align.  If schools and childcare centers are closed,  the employee required to report back to work has to look at their options.  There is a solution to every problem, but solutions become more accessible when we have the calmness and clarity of mind to look for them. Stress diminishes our ability to be creative.

If the leader stayed in touch with team members, the leader would now be in a position to understand everyone’s ability to reintegrate into work culture, both physically and emotionally. Without such insight, it will be challenging to successfully manage the transition back to the office or have unrealistic expectations. 

Zoom fatigue. Many employees may have reached the point of Zoom overload. People’s personalities are a factor. Introverts and extroverts handled probably handled the virtual interaction year differently.  Introverts might be overwhelmed when extroverts crave a higher frequency of those connections. It is essential to understand that people may be in different areas emotionally when going back to the office.  So, as organizations start requiring the physical presence at the office, the leader should consider doing the following:  

  1. Listen to Understand.  Open the line of communication with the intent to listen.  Now more than ever, is communication a critical skill of the leader, particularly listening skills. It’s not about solving the problems for each individual, but about understanding their perspective.  After all, they have had a year to form new habits.  People have to unlearn and relearn their jobs to an extent.  It is hard to move forward when you don’t feel heard.  It would be advantageous to provide the forum to talk about the past year to understand what additional challenges, if any, employees are bringing to the workplace.
  2. Promote Calmness.  The leader should not contribute to the high stress already generated during the pandemic.  Mental health professionals are saying that depression and suicide have skyrocketed during the past year.  Stress shuts down parts of the brain necessary for creative problem-solving.  I am not advocating to start a day with a yoga session at the office, but some simple breathing exercises might do the trick.  Breathing sends signals to the amygdala and the emotional centers that it is safe and calm, helping activate the brain’s creative center.
  3. Define Change as Part of Reality. The probability that things will change is high.  The leader should plan for the discomfort of change by providing clarity as organizations move forward to establish the new normal.  Constantly readjusting is not easy. But a realistic approach to change will help the team to expect and deal with the changes as necessary.

The three strategies mentioned above are by no means a comprehensive list of things that leaders should do.  The pandemic has and continues to affect people personally, professionally, and emotionally and it may take a while until many can bring stability to their daily routine.  Organizations will need to deal with the human factor, to help recover from a year of constant change and uncertainty.  If your organization had a culture of collaboration where people performed at their highest level, it might take some time to bring it back to what it was.  But it may have a higher chance of bouncing back than those organizations that were already struggling with the lack of engagement.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” –Theodore Roosevelt

Leaders have a significant role in restoring the organization’s culture and helping people readjust to the “future normal.” It is essential to recognize that in this process, people have to build their infrastructure of support to that which enables them to send their kids to school, childcare confidently, and focus on giving their best to the organization.

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