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How to ensure a successful ‘return to work’ after Covid-19

Bringing your people together and consciously preparing for a 'return to work' will help set you up for success during the 'next normal'.

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With indicative dates for the reopening of the UK economy the conversation is moving, once again, to working arrangements and how businesses can support their people.

For some, a physical return to the office is long overdue. These people cannot wait to get out of the house, reclaim their workstation, reconnect with colleagues, and enjoy unplanned interactions around the workplace. For others, a physical return to work could rob them of the increased freedom, flexibility, and productivity they have experienced over the past year. Then, of course, there are some who fall in between – those who support a hybrid arrangement of office and homeworking.

Individual circumstances may also vary. For some, who have joined a new company or team, or where there has been a structural change, a physical return to the office may cause increased anxiety. Recruitment and onboarding have been conducted virtually and relationships formed online. For others, a return to work may signal the end of furlough, and an end to extra time at home or a change in employment circumstances.

I facilitated an agile leadership development workshop recently and during the programme, everyone was asked how they would describe their team right now. One of the most memorable answers was, “I love my team, but right now, they are like a rugby scrum and I need them to be more like a peloton.” My biggest takeaway from that session was that everyone is feeling anxious and unsettled about working arrangements in the ‘next normal.’ People are finding it hard. Teams feel disconnected and many have lost their sense of belonging or unity under a common purpose.

After 18 years working in learning and development, and having set up my own boutique consultancy, I’ve learned a few things about the negative impact that increased anxiety can have on wellbeing and productivity. I’ve also learned about the business breakthroughs that can be achieved when you invest in your people and help them increase their awareness of self and others. This is the pathway to creating high performing, trusting teams. With that in mind, I wanted to share a few tips to help businesses and leaders support their people during the next transition.

Set expectations by sharing a detailed ‘return to work’ plan. What are the working arrangements – a full return to the office or a hybrid approach? What are key milestones, actions and responsibilities? Ensure you spend sufficient time discussing the plan with your team, listen to what is being said and ensure everyone understands and is supportive.

Be agile and give people – and yourself – time to find out what works best for them. The first approach may not be the final one. Workloads and family circumstances can vary throughout the year and building in flexibility will help people identify what is best for them.

Offer your team an opportunity to review the plan in their own time. Are there any recommendations from your team that you can incorporate into the plan? You may want to consider extending this opportunity further by exploring what other processes and practices can be reviewed and improved before you return to work – this could be a great ‘reset’ opportunity.

Try to ensure the process is enjoyable, builds team unity and cohesion, and nurtures belonging within the team. You may want to encourage colleagues who are most excited about returning to the office to organise ‘return to work’ activities. Just ensure these colleagues are supported to deliver on their plans and that they cater to different preferences.

Create space for your team to talk about how they are feeling. What are they anxious or excited about? Be an active listener and ensure they feel heard. Be a servant leader and do your best to ensure their concerns are addressed. Take time throughout the transition period to regularly check-in with your team and offer whatever additional support is needed.

Whatever ‘return to work’ approach and working arrangements you adopt, bringing your people together to reconnect, exploring each other’s preferences – and respecting them – will ensure you find the right pathway back to a happy, high performing team and are able to retain talent into the future.

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