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How to Lead Your Team Through the Transition Back to the Office

If the transition to WFH wasn’t challenging enough, the transition back to the office may prove even more difficult. Even though it may be a 2 or 3 months off yet, it is best for you and your team to be fully prepared.

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Source: HBR.org/Ron Carucci

Summary
If the transition to WFH wasn’t challenging enough, the transition back to the office may prove even more difficult. Even though it may be a 2 or 3 months off yet, it is best for you and your team to be fully prepared.

Our brains will be looking for familiar routines to “return” to, that simply won’t be there. And when that happens, our brains will have to expend extra energy to adjust on the fly. This transition will invite us all to bring the best versions of ourselves back to the office and reveal how the pandemic made us even stronger. Knowing that, your role as the team’s leader is uniquely important in helping others traverse this with hope, kindness, and patience to make sure those are the versions that actually show up. Setting aside the things that are out of your control, here we present six things you can do to ease everyone’s transition to whatever your company’s version of “next” looks like.

If you’re anxious about how your team is going to navigate the transition to whatever form of in-person work your company is planning, you aren’t alone. By now, you’re likely aware that most employees don’t want to return to whatever normal looked like pre-pandemic. A recent survey from Harvard Business School of 1,500 employees revealed that 81% of them either don’t want to come back at all or would prefer a hybrid model of work. Of those, 27% hope to remain working remotely full time, while 61% would prefer to work from home two to three days a week. Only 18% want to return to in-person work full time. While those percentages might vary among your team, it’s fair to expect that the vast majority of your employees won’t be cheering when your organization announces its expectations for a return to the office.

So, as a leader, how do you keep your team motivated and engaged during your company’s transition? Of course, some of that will be determined by factors outside of your control, like the degree of flexibility your organization is offering. But the more say employees have over their work structure, the less resistance they’ll feel to the transition. Setting aside the things that are out of your hands, here are a few things you can do to ease everyone’s transition to whatever your company’s version of “next” looks like.

Be transparent without being a victim.
When the level of flexibility you’re able to offer employees doesn’t match their expectations, listen to their concerns and disappointment with empathy. Be as transparent as you can about the organization’s reasoning behind the policies being put in place. Never respond with anything like, “Sorry, but it’s out of my control,” as that signals helplessness and defensiveness, likely riling them further. Surface concerns early and communicate consistently.
People will assume you have more answers than you probably do about new policies and protocols, and you may get asked questions for which no satisfying answer exists. Learning to provide honest responses will be key to showing good leadership. Proactively alert people to any impending changes you hear about, and let people know what you’re doing to stay informed on their behalf. By effectively managing others’ expectations, you help ensure they don’t become obstacles to an already complicated transition.

Involve the team in balancing individual and group needs.
If you do have some discretion over how to implement WFH policies on your team, you’ll need to determine how to apply those rules to certain individual circumstances without being unfair to others. Re-establishing cohesion after being apart for so long is vital, so you don’t want to begin with some people feeling resentful for the flexibility you show others but not them.
When possible, engage your employees in figuring out how best to use the discretion you’re allotted. Have each person express their needs and preferences, and within the bounds of what’s allowed, charge the team with working out how to balance them. For example, single parents may have different needs for flexibility than those caring for aging parents. People will be inclined to be more flexible, even sacrificial, for the sake of the team when it’s their choice to do so.

Encourage the team to create new work practices everyone adheres to for both where work happens as well as when work happens. For example, ensure all meetings include video links so those working from home can participate equally. Or set defined worktime hours, like 11:00 am – 2:00 pm ET, when everyone must be available online, while also setting weekend boundaries when everyone is expected to be offline. For large meetings, have everyone join from their computer, regardless of whether they’re at home or in the office, so that nobody feels left out. People will feel far more committed to solutions they help create, and the creativity they exercise may feel energizing and ignite excitement for the transition, easing any angst they may be experiencing.

Allow people space to grieve.
For some, regardless of what level of flexibility you offer, the transition from WFH may represent deeper loss than just control over their time. Some people lost loved ones to Covid-19 but never had the chance to say goodbye. Others rekindled their connection to life partners and discovered newfound closeness with their children. Still others developed personal routines they came to enjoy that will now be disrupted. No matter how positive “next” may be, allow people space to grieve the loss of whatever this past season has meant for them. Grief may take on many forms. Some may be unusually quiet. Others a bit terse. Some may be suddenly teary after a colleague mentions their family. If you create the space for people to let go of what this last 18 months has been, you’ll enable them to more fully embrace the next normal you’re inviting them to help create.

Don’t burden them with your ambivalence.
Be honest with yourself about your own struggles to return to the office. You too will have to adapt, and probably have mixed feelings about what you’re giving up.
While being vulnerable with your team about personal difficulties may build deeper connection, take care not to overdo it. As a leader, appreciate the difference between saying, “I fully understand what coming back means for you as a parent. I’m going to miss the time I got to spend with my four year old,” and saying, “Believe me, I know how much coming back sucks. I wouldn’t either if I didn’t have to!” If you need a safe haven where you can vent, consider engaging a coach or close confidant. But for your team’s sake, remember that they’re following your example.

Consolidate pandemic stories together.
While there’s no getting around the horrors of the pandemic, for many, there were some unexpected benefits and learning. There were WFH mishaps with video cameras and kitchen chaos as dinner tables doubled as classrooms and offices. There were unexpected discoveries of personal resilience and creativity and revelations of personal limitations that required learning self-compassion. One organization I work with is hosting a “return-to-next” re-entry party, at which they’ll create a digital scrapbook of each team member’s favourite pandemic stories. By sharing aspects of the past 18 months that your team experienced while separated, you’ll help them see each other in a fresh light. None of us will return the same as we were 18 months ago. Creating a special experience to discover who you each became will rekindle your team bonds while refreshing your sense of newness about what’s to come.

Be a source of joy.
One of the best ways to ease any angst your team might be feeling is to create a sense of lightheartedness for them. There are unquestionably things that people miss about being in the office: rituals your team enjoyed, celebrations that were suspended, opportunities to be off camera and feel less isolated. A PwC survey from June 2020 revealed that 50% of employees felt that collaboration and relationship building were better in person. Help people see the new ways you’ll be able to re-establish those things once everyone returns. Humour, used thoughtfully, can be especially helpful for creating joy. Share stories of your own WFH mayhem that makes it safe for others to follow suit. As the team’s leader, this is an especially good time to show servanthood — doing what you can to personally ease the transition for team members for whom it might be difficult. Demonstrating genuine support now will build the team’s loyalty and dedication to each other and to your performance commitments for the year ahead.

If the transition to WFH wasn’t challenging enough, the transition back to the office may prove even more difficult. Our brains will be looking for familiar routines to “return” to that simply won’t be there. And when that happens, our brains will have to expend extra energy to adjust on the fly. This transition will invite us all to bring the best versions of ourselves back to the office and reveal how the pandemic made us even stronger. Knowing that, your role as the team’s leader is uniquely important in helping others traverse this with hope, kindness, and patience to make sure those are the versions that actually show up.

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