Returning to the Workplace: Navigating Ongoing Transition

The work environment has changed dramatically over the last 18 months, and although we are on a path to recovery, returning to the workplace promises to be an ongoing journey with many unknowns. With the recent uptick in COVID numbers, leaders are facing mounting uncertainty as concerns surrounding new variants, breakthrough infections, and the impact of potential quarantine measures on their people and organizations continue to grow.

While several companies welcomed employees back in some capacity this summer, others anticipated a return to “normal” operating model by early September. Now amid the Delta surge, many more are revisiting earlier plans and making the decision to delay reopening targets until 2022. Regardless of where your organization is today, the following offers practical considerations and leadership actions to help navigate the challenges of the return-to-work transition successfully.

Understand and Respond to Employee Preferences and Concerns
Gartner research shows that 75 percent of hybrid or remote employees say their expectations for working flexibly have increased, and four out of ten are at risk of leaving if an in-person return to work is mandated. A recent survey of 500 global CEOs, however, found that a large majority of executives worldwide remain apprehensive about a fully remote workforce and only 30 percent are considering a hybrid model. While conducted before the sudden rise of the Delta variant, the research reveals the inclination of many companies to have most staff return to the office once the health crisis subsides. Findings like these highlight an emerging gap between employee voices and employer preferences and underscore the critical need for feedback loops in developing future work plans.

What’s at Risk? Establishing policies and plans without listening to employee concerns—whether about work preferences or health and overall safety—may lead to decreased levels of morale, withdrawal, reduced productivity, and increased turnover at a time when retention is critical.

Quick-Hit Actions:

    • At this point, you may have solicited early feedback from employees. If not, now is the time to conduct a survey to gauge how team members are feeling about the transition, measure readiness, identify concerns and potential challenges. If possible, use an anonymous survey and allow for candid comments and suggestions to help inform evolving workplace practices and policies, work arrangements, employee benefits and support.
    • Beyond an initial return-to-work survey, demonstrate to employees that their feelings and opinions are valued and respected by facilitating frequent pulse surveys and establishing feedback channels to understand and discuss what’s working well, what can be improved, and how team members are faring mentally and physically. Model an agile mindset and remind your people of the need to remain flexible as the organization tests, learns, and adapts to changes along the way.
    • Hold focus groups to open dialogue about shared questions and concerns across teams. Bring differing opinions and assumptions to the surface and encourage people to authentically express their emotions—both positive and negative—to understand where teams are collectively.
    • Help employees feel heard by acknowledging and responding to their concerns in a timely and sensitive manner. For example, if several team members express worries about physical health and safety, help them understand what the organization is doing to make the workplace safe and/or commit to lobbying for additional precautions to ease anxiety.

Provide Individualized Support for Changing Circumstances and Needs
The pandemic has been and continues to be especially challenging for certain employees such as immunocompromised team members and those living with and/or caring for high-risk family members. Working parents have had a particularly difficult time managing through the crisis. Unbalanced responsibilities at home due to the shutdown of schools and daycare centers drove women to leave the workforce at an alarming rate—nearly 2.4 million between February 2020 and February 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And now, as the threat of the Delta variant grows, mothers and fathers of children not yet eligible for vaccination grapple with protecting their households in the months ahead.

What’s at Risk? Failure to acknowledge and accommodate individual and changing needs of employees uniquely impacted by the pandemic may diminish physical and mental well-being, trust in leadership, and performance overall—not to mention, force diverse and valued team members to seek employment elsewhere.

Quick-Hit Actions:

    • Check in with your people and be conscious of the added burden some individuals are carrying.
    • As school resumes, working parents may be concerned about evolving policies and procedures for keeping both vaccinated and unvaccinated children safe, as well as how they will handle quarantining requirements for COVID exposures. Ask how they are coping and how you can best support them to be effective in their roles.
    • Work with employees to jointly set realistic expectations for managing responsibilities and consider establishing an agreed-upon nonstandard work schedule if needed to help them achieve a better balance. Be flexible and open-minded about how paid time off (PTO) is used; employees may need fewer “vacation days” and more “personal days” than they did before.
    • Share updates on available employee assistance programs and the full range of benefits available such as paid sick and/or extended family and medical leave policies, increased access to mental health support, monthly child/elder care stipends, flexible work arrangements, etc.
    • Continue to pay extra attention to these “at-risk” populations, responding to evolving needs, preferences, and circumstances empathetically. Signal to employees that you can relate—e.g., “I am a parent too.”— and work to maintain the levels of sensitivity and flexibility needed to help employees weather ongoing change.

Ensure Alignment and Visible Commitment to New Ways of Working
As with any large-scale change, organizational alignment and effective communication are crucial to the adoption of new return-to-office policies. As the workplace is redefined and the “rules” of work continue to evolve, leaders must be on the same page, communicating the “why” behind changes in how the business operates and serving as visible champions of new ways of working to foster acceptance and commitment across the organization.

What’s at Risk? Conflicting leadership messages and behaviors may cause confusion and fuel skepticism, weaken confidence in organizational vision and direction, and create barriers to achieving a smooth transition and post-pandemic success.

Quick-Hit Actions:

    • As plans continue to evolve, ensure alignment at every turn, and provide frequent, transparent communication to bring employees along in understanding what the future of work looks like for their organization.
    • In setting expectations with team members, link work and policy changes to the company’s purpose and vision and provide the rationale behind critical decisions to encourage “buy-in” for return plans.
    • Tailor employee communication to be relevant to various levels and roles—framing messages to focus on what team members and the broader organization will gain from the transition.
    • Highlight repeatedly the individual, team, and organizational benefits realized from implementing new policies to fortify adoption and sustain change.
    • Carve out time for ongoing dialogue and active listening to proactively address employee questions and concerns that surface throughout the transition.

Clarify and Reclarify Priorities and Expectations
The uncertainty stemming from changing work environments, practices, and working relationships is not only uncomfortable for employees but incredibly distracting. While workplace disruption is nothing new, the pace and scale continue to cause many people to feel overwhelmed and anxious about their future. Clarity around roles, work priorities, and performance targets can help to mitigate ongoing turmoil and keep team members aligned, focused, and productive in the months ahead.

What’s at risk? Understanding of roles and shared goals can strengthen relationships and trust among colleagues as well as provide a sense of purpose and belonging. Lack of clarity and direction, however, can fuel stress, burnout, feelings of isolation, and decreased levels of job satisfaction and commitment.

Quick-Hit Actions:

    • Regularly confirm priorities and changes to drive individual and team alignment throughout the transition.
    • Clearly define team members’ roles and responsibilities and create a connection between their contributions and the goals of the organization.
    • Enlist the right resources in the right activities based upon capabilities, interests, and development goals—proactively setting and resetting expectations for performance as needed.
    • Provide context for assignments and success metrics so that the rationale behind the work is understood along with how performance will be measured.
    • View ongoing communication and timely feedback not only as an opportunity to positively challenge and develop team members but also to deepen connections and build trust with employees.
    • Consistently reinforce shared values and purpose and remind team members of their vital role in achieving business results.
    • With fewer informal touchpoints, be mindful and deliberate about recognizing individual and team achievements. Set and celebrate the accomplishment of “mini milestones” as well as larger goals, being careful to focus on outcomes—not where, when, or how they were achieved.

Cultivate Positive Team Dynamics and Overall Effectiveness
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this new phase of work. Whether in person, remote, or a hybrid of the two, there are complexities that come with managing teams in the current landscape. While leaders can’t control the unconscious, psychological factors influencing collective behavior and performance, they can cultivate the supportive group dynamics needed to stay connected and productive in the wake of continuing change.

What’s at Risk? Positive dynamics foster trust and respect, reducing opportunities for friction and unproductive conflict among employees. Further, they promote a sense of shared accountability and commitment to organizational success. When team dynamics are poor, the cost can be high in terms of diminished worker well-being and effectiveness, group collaboration, creativity, and innovation—all of which impact the bottom line.

Quick-Hit Actions:

    • Bring employees together to co-create the way forward and redefine productivity. Discuss and align around how team members will interact, communicate, and work together, as well as what great performance looks like and how the team can fuel it.
    • Understand that remote work can make some team members feel isolated and even invisible. Build inclusion and connection by ensuring everyone—remote and not—has equal opportunity to participate in team meetings and feel heard, and that no one feels excluded from decision-making or creative processes.
    • Make intentional communication a daily practice; engaging with employees is not simply about “checking in” but about deepening personal connections. Meet team members where they are, regularly asking questions, listening, and creating conditions to support the diverse needs of employees and enable their best work.
    • Normalize different working arrangements by openly discussing them and setting clear expectations to avoid misunderstanding and built-up resentment. Continue to involve the team in balancing individual and group needs; commitment to solutions will be stronger if employees feel they had a role in shaping them.
    • Allow time and space for team members to acknowledge difficulties in adapting to new ways of working and create opportunities to share learning and collectively brainstorm improvements that can be made.
    • Acknowledge wins—big and small—to underscore what is valued. High-performing teams are forged in recognition-rich environments and pausing to celebrate progress amid ongoing transition will only help to strengthen connection and forward momentum.

Promote Psychological Safety Alongside Physical Safety
The events of 2020 proved just how complicated and stressful workplace transitions can be. Emotional and mental distress among employees has grown significantly over the course of the pandemic, and a real risk exists that evolving work expectations and experiences will spur another wave of anxiety. A recent Gartner study found that employers who demonstrate support for employees’ whole lives—not just their work lives—realize a 21 percent increase in the number of high performers compared to organizations that don’t. Prioritizing and promoting psychological safety alongside physical safety will require continual focus and effort, but the more comfortable and cared for employees feel, the more engaged and productive they will be.

What’s at risk? The absence of psychological safety at work hinders one’s ability to connect with others in a genuine way, openly ask questions, share opinions, express personal needs, and ask for help. When employees hold back in fear of being judged, rejected, or losing their job, they cannot do their best work. When they feel safe, however, research shows a tendency to be open-minded, adaptable in the face of change, and motivated to commit to the cause of the organization.

Quick-Hit Actions:

    • Bring your team together to discuss the importance of psychological safety at work—how it contributes to creating a climate of trust and respect and, in turn, serves the team and broader business by facilitating divergent thinking, creativity, collaboration, and innovation.
    • Establish and routinely underline ground rules for team member interactions, creating an inclusive space where all colleagues can speak candidly without interruption and mistakes can be examined without placing blame.
    • Invite courageous conversations, setting clear expectations for participation, and sharing what’s on the line for the organization if team members fail to ask questions, offer perspective, and/or respectfully challenge opinions.
    • Promote a growth mindset among team members by responding productively to reasonable risk-taking and encouraging learning from setbacks, acknowledging that there will be several as both the team and organization experiment with new ways of working.
    • Model the way and make it easier for employees to demonstrate candor and vulnerability by proactively seeking feedback, admitting that you do not have all the answers, and sharing concerns relevant to changing work norms and personal challenges as you face them. When you open up, you set the tone for honest communication and empathetic listening and inspire team members to do the same.

DCG’s purpose—and promise—has always been to help leaders lead change, and it drives us now more than ever to support our colleagues, clients, partners, and friends in enabling a successful workplace transition, be it to a fully in-person, remote, or hybrid model.

Our specialized training and experience enable us to help our clients align and engage employees, forge emotional connections, and achieve new levels of clarity and performance. We know how to bridge the gap between where an organization is today and where it needs to be, equipping people with the knowledge and tools to behave in new and different ways critical to business success.

Specifically, we provide support to organizations navigating the return-to-work transition by:

    • Creating a shared vision for the “future of work” among leadership that resonates with employees.
    • Evaluating organizational design and developing plans to facilitate changes in roles, responsibilities, reporting relationships, and structure to support and enable new ways of working.
    • Assessing the impact of workplace changes on employees and developing a strategy to address resistance to evolving work policies and practices where necessary.
    • Developing a communications campaign to create understanding, inspire action, and strengthen commitment amid lingering uncertainty.
    • Designing customized training programs to ensure employees have the tools, knowledge, and capabilities needed to succeed in their changing environment.
    • Monitoring interdependencies, sequencing of change activities, allocation of resources, and management of issues and risks throughout the transition.
    • Outlining a plan to sustain new behaviors and measure ongoing performance as individuals and teams move through change.
    • Delivering tailored learning programs to improve leaders’ ability to lead change, focusing on building relationships and trust, managing conflict, improving communication, and motivating performance.

Our team is with you on this journey, and we are here to help.

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