One Eye Part 8: The Hiccupping Return to Our Workplaces

Many of you have been going to your workplaces throughout the pandemic. A handful of Adamantine’s clients reopened their offices (at least partly) as early as May. The Return to the Workplace (RtW) presents us with a lot to consider, and I want to shorten your learning curve by sharing an unattributed compilation of our clients’ successes, missteps, and lessons learned. 

Both of these things are true:

  • Today’s peak-pandemic challenges require all of our energy, wit, and capacity.
  • Keeping one eye on the future requires returning to our workplaces with grace, efficiency, and an eye to the next, inevitable disruptions.

The situation:

As a leader, you have had innumerable financial machinations and operational logistics to worry about over the past several months. At the same time, you are leading a workforce that is scared-to-death — or alternatively over-confident — about their health and the future. 

So many disruptions to anticipate — so little video-conference-free time. 

In our client engagements, we have broken down RtW into essentially these four phases: 

  1. Essential personnel. You have largely sorted out how to do this.
  2. Staged RtW. Whether it’s teams, phases, or shifts — this is the phase most workplaces are currently in. With one part policy and one part experimentation, most companies are sprinkling in a dose of empowerment and good will. This involves consulting your employees regularly and giving them the benefit of the doubt during these transitions.
  3. Evolved normal. Or just the new way. I cannot bring myself to say “new normal” having lived personally through two massive natural disasters and getting to new twice before in my adult life. Some things will change partially or fully around work location, travel, supply chains and engaging predictably as groups. It’s our job to guide this evolution mindfully.
  4. Future innovation and efficiencies. With foresight and creativity, we can accelerate and invent better ways of doing business.

RtW now has most of us working on the Staged RtW phase; doing this well requires that we keep an eye on both future phases and the realities of positively influencing the human behavior around us.

The critical mistakes not to make: Company culture is going to be mission critical for employees to feel safe — and return effectively to work. Companies leaders must set the example and fully embrace and model the company’s protocols. 

  • Communicating logistics only. We are still in a societal health and financial crisis — so all communications should be sensitive to the fear, heartache, and confusion facing every employee. You have to balance the guidance of your legal counsel with focusing on the humanity of your workforce.
  • Getting all macho. It is not a good look, and it is not going to age well. Real men wear masks, especially if it’s in your protocols and you are a leader.
  • Sending mixed messages. Leaders who are not social distancing and aren’t wearing masks when appropriate are setting up their companies for heartbreak. Is the inconvenience worth risking sending an employee home to their immunocompromised child with COVID-19?

Seize the day: Successful RtW efforts include the following. 

  • Ask new questions. As Paula Gant discussed in our webinar in June (available on podcast now), the companies who will be successful have leaders now actively pondering what the next right questions are. They certainly will not be the ones we asked last week.
  • Communicate — repeatedly — in many channels. Companies are learning that a new, distributed workforce is receiving and digesting information differently. Successful company communications are deliberate, have lots of repetition, and occur through different channels. These can include company webinars and newsletters, internal podcasts, team meetings and emails, protocols, informal check-ins, and frequent reminders.
  • Create company culture. With so much evolving quickly, successful leaders will invoke and evolve the company culture to create a culture of pandemic safety, mutual care, and personal responsibility. Where done well, the benefits to employee trust and morale will last for years.
  • Clarify your default positions early. As soon as you can, clarify who should work at home until further notice; what your customer and vendor interactions will be; and your expectations on personal PPE, travel guidelines, and cleaning plans for workplaces. Even though you will need to make exceptions, articulating the broad-brush strokes will instill confidence and foster transparency.
  • Push out decisions and gather feedback. Employees are experiencing so much uncertainty that leading companies are letting teams drive decisions that makes sense. Creating two-way feedback will also allow your company to make course corrections while gaining buy-in and trust along the way.
  • Special cases and exceptions. Setting up and communicating your process to accommodate employee needs will further build confidence. One-third of the U.S.’s workforce is juggling work and children at home. Some families have to consider a health vulnerability. Leading employers have a system to confidentially assess and meet appropriate accommodations.
  • Course corrections. With multiple waves of disruption ahead, all of our businesses will be continually adjusting along the way. Build a system for making — and then communicating —these changes are part of your RtW plan.
  • Accelerate innovation. Because nothing will ever be the same again, make a space in your planning to ask the questions we’ve been recommending from day one: What’s coming next? What opportunities exist right now that we could take advantage of if we had the resources? Use this moment to mindfully accelerate technology adoption, increase efficiencies, and innovate continually.
  • Participate in society’s response. We have the opportunity through our planning, communications, and actions to lead our collective response, recovery, and rebuild efforts. Never let a good crisis go to waste! Engage actively in your communities and transcend historic divides through your good works. We provide resources in our remote volunteerism issue.

I would like to hear what you’ve learned does and does not work; hit reply and tell me about your experiences with RtW. If this email was forwarded to you, you can subscribe here.

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