Returning to work after lockdown – the skills leaders need to succeed

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There is little to dispute the fact that these times are testing our leadership skills in ways they haven’t been tested before.

As a leader will you make the grade in leading your teams back to the workplace? Your success will be determined by two things – trust and safety.

With lockdown restrictions eased to actively encourage people to return to work, leaders are now facing a combination of:

  • Crisis leadership – overnight we have had to rethink our business operations.
  • Transition leadership – as we try and make sense of the changes that are happening around us.
  • Transformational leadership – to lead our teams and organisations into a very uncertain future.

For now, leadership competencies relating to efficiency, productivity and revenues need to be put on the backburner. These skills are not the ones that will get you through the next demanding stage of change and the quest for a new normal as the coronavirus crisis continues to impact business.

As the nation’s return to work is now being planned and considered, we might be about to face our ultimate leadership task – the task of leading teams back into the workplace. This should not be underestimated.

Putting people at the heart of leadership

This could be a day of absolute reckoning. The current crisis has shone a light on the importance of people – individuals, their families and their communities. Our leadership style and actions must be the same. The focus must be about people and how we keep them safe.

Our leadership must put people and humans at the heart of all actions and decisions; a style where leaders are stewards of the lives entrusted to them and where they endeavor to keep their teams safe, healthy and fulfilled.

Key to this human-centered leadership is the ability to build and maintain trust – something that can’t be bought and is easily lost.

Do you have the trust of your people? Leaders without trust are likely to now be in trouble.

If you are to have chance of getting your people back to the workplace there are two conditions your employees will need to be be fulfilled:

  1. Trust in your ability to lead
  2. Evidence that their safety is a priority  

To build the level of trust needed for our teams to follow us back to the workplace, we need to understand and respect individuals’ needs for safety.

These needs are unique and deeply personal. No one person has had the same experience. As a rather popular expression says, “we are all weathering the same storm, but in different boats”. 

There are those who:

  • Will be keen to get back to work but can’t because of family commitments, shielding needs or perceived unsafe journeys to work.
  • Have high levels of stress, anxiety and fear and will not return without evidence, certainty and trust that they are safe.
  • Have discovered they prefer the home environment and the rediscovery of time that was lost due to commuting and don’t want to return to the office.

There are those teams who are experiencing furlough and non-furlough scenarios to consider, as well as those who work on site (at personal risk) and those who are safe at home.

As leaders there must be an acknowledgement that our workforce are returning with very differing levels of fear and anxiety. The experience of Covid-19 and social distancing will lead to individuals re-assessing priorities and needs.

Leading with empathy

To build trust from our people, as leaders we must turn up our behaviour of empathy. Often misunderstood, empathy is the ability to not only see the world as others see it, but to feel the world as they feel it, too.

Empathy is not based on assumption, but curiosity and listening. It’s very often about listening to what is not being said as much as that which is spoken. Deep connection through feelings allows us to consider our responses, our nudges, our encouragement to trust us in our request to return to work.

This is a behaviour that, as a nation, we are not particularly skilled in as we continue to have a ‘stiff upper lip’ with a rather limited vocabulary around feelings and limited appetite to explore those feelings with others. This is no more evident than in the daily-asked question “How are you?” and the social etiquette expected in answering the question with a polite, “Fine, thank you”.

Listening to our people

Remote working brings significant challenges to this ability to listen. Now that we are no longer in the same room as our people, we are susceptible to missing communication cues, the overall vibe and the atmosphere; we have lost the ability to innately sense what is really going on behind the words.

This is coupled with the challenge that if, as individuals, our people don’t feel psychologically safe they will protect themselves for fear of consequence and won’t communicate their needs with honesty and transparency.

It’s a catch-22 scenario: no trust = no safety; no safety = no trust. It is those leaders who can successfully connect with others and build high levels of trust and are adept at empathy who will be the winners in this cycle of change.

Leadership flexibility and adaptability will also be key to building trust and safety as we lead our teams back to work.

Leading inclusively

We will need to assess how our leadership shapes up in the eye of inclusion and equality. Initial assessment of protected groups shows that there has been considerable difference in the impact of Covid-19 on different communities.

  • Our BAME communities are experiencing significantly more illness and death than other groups.
  • Women are reported as picking up the lion’s share of childcare work during lockdown. This brings about numerous challenges, from productivity while the kids are at home, through to how to return to work without safe childcare options.
  • Privilege is highlighting the enormous discrepancies between the haves and have nots and the challenges a work-from-home scenario brings.
  • Some groups have benefited fantastically from lockdown, such as those less-abled or those who are neurodiverse, who have found working from home to be a great help.

In support of building trust and safety leaders may look to significantly reconsider their communication competency. Introducing an authentic, values-led, unifying purpose that is clearly articulated (ie. “I care for you”) will, if delivered well, unite teams.

As leader this must come from the heart and be congruent in style, tone and language used otherwise it will fall on deaf ears and serve as confirmation that safety is not at the heart of the message. Have we, as leaders, been congruent to this message from the start of lockdown? If not it may take some convincing for teams to follow you going forward.

If leading your teams in their return to work is an issue that is affecting you and you would like further guidance on how to manage this new transition successfully, get in touch to learn how we are supporting leaders through this unprecedented challenge. 


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