Making a Comeback: How to Lead Your Team’s Post-COVID-19 Return to Work

While we are not out of the woods with COVID-19 yet, many organizations are beginning to plan for gradual return to office work. For some employees, this will be a welcome relief from the isolation of remote work. But, for others, it will be a disruption that could feel even bigger than the shift to working at home.

Regardless of where you and your team fall on that emotional spectrum, as a leader you should see this change as an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and strengthen the connections that can help drive high performance. Here are some key practices that will help you lead your team through their return to work:

  • Celebrate the successes your team delivered while working remotely: Recognizing team success is often easy to overlook when you’ve been focused just on surviving. But, there’s no doubt that your team accomplished a lot in the face of some really challenging circumstances during their stay at home periods. As you take the first steps in returning to more “normal” ways of working, make a commitment to publicly celebrating the individual and collective successes of your team.
  • Extend an extra measure of grace: Even when the economy begins to open back up, it’s likely the stress of the past few months will have left a mark on your team. Your team will probably still be dealing with health concerns for family or friends, juggling childcare issues, or navigating financial distress. Expecting everyone to step right back into a normal mode of operation isn’t realistic. Plan ahead for uneven performance, reduced productivity, or unexpected absences from work. And, when those things do come up, make an extra effort to engage and support your team as they balance being back in the office with responsibilities outside of work.
  • Recognize there may be guilt or sadness: Returning to the office will evoke a host of emotions for your team. For some, that may mean feeling guilty about leaving the care of children or others family members to someone else. Maybe there will be sadness for co-workers who were laid off or feelings of loss stemming from continued physical distancing requirements. These will be powerful emotional experiences that will impact the way your team works and its ability to perform. As a leader, you need to be prepared to deal with these negative emotions and their impact on your work. If you aren’t already familiar with the resources available in your organization to support the emotional health of employees now is the time to start learning. Contact your HR department to learn about your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other available resources. There are also plenty of resources online to help you learn to navigate emotional and mental health conversations. The CDC’s page on mental health in the workplace and Justworks, an HR outsourcing provider, offers tools and tips you can access here, are just two examples you can use to help you support your team.
  • Don’t just go back to normal: The return to work process provides you with an unprecedented opportunity to create new team norms and drive new ways of working. Perhaps in the past you focused on performance and accountability rather than culture. Now is the perfect time to reset expectations, get specific about how your team works together, and build new team norms. Consider starting with a team retrospective or After Action Review to talk through what worked, what didn’t, and what you can learn from how your team worked together in the past. And use that as a jumping off point for defining your new ideal state.

As physical distancing requirements gradually relax and our lives return to something a bit closer to normal, leaders will have a tremendous opportunity to forge new relationships and create new ways of working. Now is the time to start planning and preparing so you’re ready to best support your team when they return.

P.S. One critical part of being prepared for your team’s return is making sure you are taking care of yourself. Take some time this week to invest in your own well being and start working on building the new skills you’ll need to lead your team into this uncertain future. Here are a few great resources that can help you on your development journey.

Build your resilience; Hone your skills in communicating during disruption; and practice being a positive leader.

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