If there can be any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's that we are more resilient, more empowered, and more aware than ever before. The drastic shift to remote work demonstrated that, in times of crisis, we are capable of anything. When the world tried to come to a screeching halt, we persevered.

So with the gradual return of in-person work, school, and socialization, it's vital that those in leadership positions nurture this newfound resiliency and empowerment--or else risk losing their talent to more compassionate employers--by building a return-to-work plan that is both mindful and exclusive to the business and the needs of the employees.

As I've come to consider my own organization's return plan, I landed on the following insights.

Start with some honesty.

If the past two years have taught me anything, it's that embracing uncertainty is the only (honest) path forward. When offices went dark in March 2020, we were under the impression that we would be returning within two weeks. Now, we're more than eighteen months--and many variants--into a pandemic that has completely altered how we live.

As you roll out plans to bring your teams back into the office, clearly communicate your uncertainties. Oxymoron aside, it's more damaging to be lulled into a false sense of security than it is to leave room for flexibility (however frustrating that may be). Instead of enacting ironclad policies and setting an immovable return date, commit to--and prepare for--a more open-ended transition. That involves staying up-to-date on health and safety practices, heeding the advice of licensed medical professionals and legitimate agencies, and, through soliciting feedback from employees about their concerns and preferences.

Act with empathy.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to empathy. The pandemics has been uniquely challenging for everyone in ways that one person simply cannot imagine, and we as leaders must recognize the varying degrees in which employees were affected. Some have experienced immeasurable loss, while others had to deal with a debilitating illness. Those that were fortunate enough to be left unscathed were still confronted with difficult scenarios, ranging from concerns about job security, child-care, safety concerns, and living conditions.

But it's not just the pandemic that has been weighing on people. The recent presidential election--one of the most divisive in history--has led to increased awareness of and debates over discrimination in our lives and in our workplaces.. So for some, the move from office to home provided a much-needed respite from the bias of professionalism standards prevalent in our typically Euro-centric business environment--whether that be rules regarding dress, hairstyle, or non-inclusive bereavement policies.

By taking a people-first approach, managers can foster a climate of comfort and compassion during what could be a difficult period for some people.

And finally, recognize--and minimize--your ego.

Leaders in a business setting, whether they are CEOs, managers, or supervisors, operate with some degree of ego. In some cases, this ego is a necessary part of being an effective leader. With ego comes determination, grit, and a remarkably strong sense of self-assurance. It is, for many people, a huge credit to their success.

But if left unchecked, ego will quickly rear its ugly head.

As one rises in the ranks, it's common for their ego to rise as well. This new, inflated sense of empowerment often creates distance between employer and employee, isolating the former from the latter. And in (not-so-uncommon) cases, it warps our goals and objectives. It's incredibly easy for people in leadership positions to slip away from the commitments they made to themselves--or worse--to their employees, especially in times of crisis. Whatever the reason, it's imperative that when leaders (inevitably) do lose sight of their values, they're equipped with strategies to re-center themselves and minimize their ego.

"Breaking free of an overly protective or inflated ego and avoiding the leadership bubble is an important and challenging job. It requires selflessness, reflection, and courage," writes Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter in "Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership."

I'll admit to my personal battle with ego inflation, and I can't recommend enough the above article from the Harvard Business Review. To get started on minimizing ego, Hougaard and Carter suggest these four strategies:

Recognize your ego is getting out of hand. If you've read this far, consider Step 1 done! Reducing any behavior begins with identifying it first.

  1. Check your privilege. Your time in management has been comfortable. Higher wages and other benefits drastically differentiate your day-to-day experience from those in lower positions--and the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly magnified those differences. Compare the perks of your role with those of your lowest salaried employee, and ask yourself: am I out of touch?
  2. Welcome adversaries. Surround yourself with both like- (and unlike-) minded people. Let your actions be challenged and opinions critiqued. The enemy of ego is a diversity of thought.
  3. Be humble! Embrace your ignorance and take ownership when you're wrong. Begin each day with a promise to learn something new. Show gratitude to those who have helped you improve.

Although minimizing ego is a lifelong journey, it, like many things, gets easier with practice.

With more and more people taking ownership of their lives and careers, organizations are being presented with a workforce that is more resilient and empowered than ever. As leaders--whether CEOs, managers, or supervisors--it's up to us to create and sustain an environment for employees that is welcoming, inclusive, safe, an