As HR policies around returning to the office are developed, regrouping with your colleagues will be both a celebration and a challenge. While people have missed interaction with their peers, many have anxieties around commuting and adjusting to new ways of working.
To alleviate these worries, organisations and leaders need to focus on delivering an authentic workplace culture that supports their teams. The best way to achieve this is from the top down; leaders must demonstrate and encourage behaviour that fosters trust and confidence as people return to work routines. The result will not only mean happier employees, but it will also reduce attrition rates and improve productivity.
Share your own vulnerability
As a leader, sharing your own vulnerabilities will foster a shared experience with others in your team. It can be difficult to build an authentic rapport with people, especially new joiners with whom you have a solely virtual relationship, which will now need to translate into an in-person experience.
By identifying common struggles with your own process of returning to the office, employees will find a relatable experience with their own anxieties, which will build deeper connections. For the first few weeks, take the opportunity to let the dust settle with your team and lead by example – go for walking meetings, or hold conversations in a more casual setting such as a coffee shop. This will deepen the relationship of trust and allow space to make casual connections that will serve as a foundation of your future working relationship.
The ‘in it together’ mentality humanises the work experience and builds greater trust and confidence in the decisions you must make day to day. If people see you grappling with policy against the personal, they will accept things more readily, particularly if those decisions adversely impact an individual’s personal circumstances.
Leveraging mutual understanding
The pandemic has given us greater personal insight through the lens of webcams on virtual meetings, and that can be harnessed for the good of the team in the physical workplace. By understanding your colleagues’ likes, dislikes, experiences and values as a by-product of the virtual working world, you get a stronger sense of what drives them personally and can successfully harness this in the office to build culture and increase productivity upon return.
Through working from home, we have gained insight into peoples’ interests and experiences on a deeper level than we might normally find. Using this insight is a great tool to build rapport with people and understand what makes them tick – people want to find common ground and interests that can help translate these virtual relationships to in person again. Be mindful of what they have had to deal with during the pandemic too, and how their experiences differ from your own. Acknowledging the struggles and accepting their validity will bring you closer as a team.
After working on your own vulnerability and personal connections, encouraging empathy between team members will deepen the relationship between them and reflect positively in their work. Make allowances for people – be fair but understanding, especially as people try to figure out their new schedule.
Understand that peoples’ experiences of the pandemic will differ, as will their views on policy and practice, and while dialogue around mental health has increased, there is still a lot of work to be done to create a safe space for employees. This is an opportunity to practice the mechanics of empathy and thus push your team to do so too. Foster transparency around communication, praise strong work and make allowances for people needing extra flexibility and you will create a team culture that looks out for each other.
When frustrations arise, take the time to reflect with the team members concerned in an informal way. This will help build bridges between teammates and ultimately create a stronger and more robust work product.
Why is this important?
While the pandemic brought about a lot of uncertainty, it also had an impact on the way people hire and got comfortable with flexible and remote working. In a busy talent market, your top employees will have no difficulty finding something that fits better with what they are looking for in a work schedule. Their loyalty will retain them to a point, but showing empathy to their situation and personal difficulties will deepen that bond and strengthen loyalty to their current role.
We all know training and mentorship has been difficult virtually, and while emphasising the need for in-person time is important, you should also ensure that you encourage a different type of productivity during that in-person time, rather than using face time just for the sake of it. For example, you can develop training and culture-centric events, such as team lunches. Post-pandemic, the rules have changed, and employees hold more power.
On the flipside, if you are trying to hire and attract new talent, a recruiting process that is deeply empathetic will help win over prospective candidates who feel a strong connectivity to the team. The candidate experience is under a magnifying glass in a remote world, so offering flexibility and in-person meetings, where allowed, to showcase culture and achieve buy-in, will ultimately help you succeed.
Bringing it all together
The pandemic has pushed the emotional agility of leaders and teams within an organisation up the agenda. People lost the emotional and physical aspects of the workplace at the start of the pandemic, and now have a heightened craving for them upon their return. Leadership that taps into this will make the biggest advancements in their team – both in terms of culture and productivity, as well as future-proofing businesses in the long run.