Thriving in the New Normal//

The Emotional Realities of Returning to the Workplace

Putting employees first will have to be our first priority.

Deliris/ Shutterstock
Deliris/ Shutterstock

In the era of COVID, no one knows exactly when things will get back to normal. (If “tolerance for ambiguity” was a desirable leadership attribute before the pandemic, it is especially valuable now.)

But just because we might not know exactly when we’ll be returning to the workplace — or what new policies and procedures await us — it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start planning for it, regardless of all the witty one-liners about the futility of human beings making plans. Because whatever the circumstances are at the time, it is going to involve a lot of complex emotional realities that will have enormous effects on motivation, engagement, and performance. And the people who will be in a position to address that are your organizational leaders and managers.

The first thing for them to know is that there is not a uniform emotional reaction in returning to the workplace. Some people have experienced isolation or cabin fever, and as a result are coming back to the workplace with tremendous gusto. Some people have found working remotely to be so transformational that they don’t want to stop. Some have been so busy dealing with the complications of childcare and/or elder care that they still haven’t had the time or space to process their feelings and emotional needs. Throw in factors like financial pressures and public health guidelines and the impossibility of a universal emotional reality becomes all the clearer.

As such, each person on the team will require different levels and types of support in order to perform at their best, meaning leaders cannot apply a one-size-fits-all approach. If anything, leaders need to create far more time than usual to be available to the team, in order to measure and address what they see happening. And it’s worth noting — this is not a one-time thing. It is ongoing. If ever there were a time for leaders to focus on leading, this is it.

Making themselves proactively available to their teams is probably the single most important thing for leaders to focus on. But there are a few other things worth keeping in mind. When it comes to providing emotional support, it’s best to spend far more time listening than talking. You’ll actually be doing your team and organization a great service if you can induce them into talking about how they are feeling and then validating what you hear.

One of the best ways to encourage people to talk authentically about how they are doing is to role model it yourself. When you express your own vulnerability, you give permission and encouragement for them to do the same.

Psychological safety, the feeling that one can say whatever they authentically think or feel without fear of negative consequence, is believed to be the most powerful predictor of team performance. This is a worthwhile focus in the best of times, and it certainly matters for the return to the workplace. As such it is crucial that people feel supported when they share. It will create an environment in which teams thrive.

This is also an important time to nurture the connections between teammates and co-workers. Social connection is a fundamental human need outside the workplace and a major determinant of motivation and engagement inside of it. So, it is worthwhile investment of time to allow those connections to form again. (Virtual meetings only do so much in terms of human connectivity.) It may be worth 30 minutes a day for team check-ins in which the only topic off the table is work.

In addition to connectivity, Self-Determination Theory tells us that to foster intrinsic motivation (the very best kind) people also need autonomy and the ability to demonstrate mastery. So, to the extent possible, try to make the return to the workplace voluntary, allowing people to continue working from home until they are comfortable returning. And whether virtually or in person, be sure to create space for people to demonstrate the great contributions they are making and to be recognized publicly for it.

And lastly, leaders would do well to resist the urge to “return to normal.” Regardless of when we return to the workplace, the return to “normal” is much further away. And if we try to pretend that things are like they were before, or worse try to force them to be, many people will feel uncomfortable and feel pressured to articulate inauthentic feelings. So don’t call it a comeback. Call it a new beginning. Because in addition to being true, it also sets the stage and expectation to create a far better “normal.” And that may end up being the biggest silver lining the era of COVID will provide.

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