"It's been bumpy," one of my coaching clients told me. She wasn't talking about closing down her business because of the pandemic. She was talking about opening back up.
As an executive coach who works with startups globally, I've seen this crisis play out while working with my clients around the world. I've been with them through the various phases of shutting down and starting to reopen. Here's some of the advice that I've been sharing with my clients, particularly around handling your employees' emotions about returning to the workplace.
Plan for strong and surprising emotions.
Remember the grief that you and your employees experienced at the beginning of this pandemic, as everything changed quite suddenly? It may seem counterintuitive, but people will experience something similar when they re-enter the workplace.
Working from home was eerie at first, but people got used to a new rhythm and the absence of a commute. And there were unexpected delights, like spending more time with their immediate families and connecting with friends more deeply, even by phone or video. People will miss the new routines they created.
At the same time, employees have intense friendships at work and they will be excited to see their co-workers and work with them face-to-face again. People will feel euphoria when they first see each other.
Some of your team will feel heightened anxiety about their health in the office and on their commutes, and the new restrictions on gathering and wearing masks will definitely take time to get used to.
When you put all of these emotions together, you have a workplace that is moody. Expect this. Make sure your key leaders expect this too.
To handle this, re-initiate frequent one-on-ones and team meetings and ask how team members are feeling. Reassure people that it's normal to have ups and downs as they enter a new phase. Listen with empathy. Ask if they have specific concerns about getting to the office or child care or anything else and help them resolve these issues. Giving people an outlet to express themselves will keep more people on an even keel more of the time so they can focus on the work of getting back to work.
Create a detailed process for the mechanics of reopening.
The logistics of restarting the office are more complicated than shutting it down. There is no button to push that returns everything back to "normal."
The office will need to be reconfigured to adhere to social distancing requirements. You may now have room for fewer people, so you'll have to figure out who will come in when. You may implement temperature monitoring devices and ask people to wear masks.
Establishing new norms in the office is critical. You can ask people to wear masks and sanitize their work areas and limit the number of people in the conference room, but initially people might forget.
Create a cross-functional and cross-level task force to plan and lead the re-entry process. They should incorporate guidance from local government and health departments to decide how to retrofit the office and phase in people coming back to work. They should also communicate the new guidelines and why they are important thoroughly all across the company.
As the leader, you need to be up to speed on all of these new procedures so you can be a role model. Everyone will follow your lead. I coach the co-founders of a financial services startup in Berlin. During their first week back in the office, one of them didn't put his mask on one morning. By the afternoon, two-thirds of the team in office had stopped wearing theirs.
You should explicitly talk about the new requirements and how you are reminding yourself to make these practices a habit. When you do forget, you can tell others about your lapses to call attention to their importance.
Reap the lessons of the crisis.
One of the CEOs I coach has made a ritual at the end of every team meeting of asking his leaders, "What are we learning?" When they all answer what they've been thinking about, it's a powerful moment of reflection for the entire team.
As they phase back into the office, they want to make sure they capture and incorporate all the lessons that this crisis has to offer.
They've learned that having a heightened mission has been motivating for people and they've seen that people appreciate the effort put into gatherings. They've learned which of their suppliers are the most resilient and they've gotten much closer to some key customers.
These are helpful insights for you to use, as well as find a way to reinvigorate the feeling of purpose in this next phase. It's a good moment to take a new look at your company's values and mission to see if you want to add or subtract anything. You got creative with Zoom cocktails and online group yoga classes. Gathering in person while social distancing will be a new challenge. Talk with your employees about how to do this. Convene groups to discuss the new insights about how to engage customers.
Whenever your company starts to go back to the office, use these principles to smooth the transition.