The first half of 2020 has been an incredible test of our resilience. Our existence has been stripped down to the essentials. We are in a global fight to protect and manage our health, and this global crisis will inevitably change the world forever and transform each and every one of us. As with all seasons and events of stress, uncertainty, and challenge, how we respond is crucial.
As this new reality starts to form, it’s important to hold a solid perspective. First, we need to stop calling this the “new normal”. I refuse to believe that normal and global pandemic can co-exist. Calling this normal negates the herculean efforts of our essential workers — people who have been on and around the front lines keeping us safe and keeping our ways of living intact.
Instead, we are facing a new reality that will require us to adapt and learn new skills. And, in the urgency to get back to work, how we re-enter our new reality is imperative.
Our New Reality
As with major events and shifts that impact human behaviour, people are at different points on the continuum of wellness. For some of us we have been directly impacted by COVID-19 and have experienced fear, anxiety, and even loss. We have spent countless hours in a state of worry about our loved ones on the front lines and our essential workers.
For others, COVID-19 has unleashed personal challenges of emotional health, isolation, and anxiety about the future. We have also witnessed personal episodes of grief at the events that did not happen. Losses of graduations, weddings, plans, routines, parties, and even the taken-for-granted act of grocery shopping or touching our faces. Grief is real. It is helpful not to judge someone else’s grief or to try and put it on a continuum or hierarchy. Your teams and families have experienced loss.
What is extremely important is that we maintain perspective on the fact that the events of COVID-19 have impacted the emotional wellness of our people. We need to support people where they are now, not where they were in March or where we think they should be. The emotional hangover of a season of uncertainty and the unknown is real.
Physical distancing, social isolation, and working remotely has not been a holiday for anyone. Each one of us is running our own race and we don’t even know if we are on mile 6 or mile 21. And for some of us, we have been running a marathon while also carrying children, home schooling, elder care, keeping a business alive, or being completely alone. We have been running the marathon distances on an obstacle course. Oh, and let’s not forget the Zoom meetings too.
As the world starts to re-open again, it is imperative that we acknowledge a major truth. The transition back to work is going to be much more difficult compared to retreating home.
When the magnitude of COVID-19 became apparent in March, organizations, companies, and teams scrambled quickly to move their people to remote working locations. For many, this refuge from the danger and threat was to stay home — our primary domain for safety, shelter, security, and control.
I have heard from groups around the world, that they were pleased with how responsive and responsibly their teams made this transition. But that was not the greatest test of our people’s resiliency. The greater test will be re-entry. We asked people to retreat for safety, now we are calling them back to the front lines.
Supporting Employees in Re-Entry
Why re-entry will be harder is because as humans our priority will always be personal safety. If your employee does not feel safe, they will not be able to work. Our human conditioning trains us to prioritize personal safety over everything else. If pushed these employees will exhibit significant stress behaviour. Stress behaviour is not misbehaviour. It is primal instincts that are enacted to keep us safe.
Transitioning people back into the big unknown of office buildings and work environments is going to take a whole other level of resiliency and fortitude. We are at the crossroads. I appreciate that there is an urgency to return to work, but if we do not plan and execute a smart re-entry plan, we could exasperate an already tender work force.
So, as leaders, how do we execute a smart re-entry plan?
1) Understand Where Your People Stand
According to research on reintegration after a traumatic and challenging event, you need to know the pulse of your people. Preliminary data is suggesting that 40% of people are okay at the idea of returning to work, approximately 20% are indifferent, and 40% report feeling anxious and have reservations.
Understand where your people are and build re-entry plans accordingly. Determine the readiness for re-entry and develop your plan proactively. We cannot afford to be reactive to a workforce that is not ready.
2) Be Flexible
The next area of consideration is how flexible can you be? Flexibility allows employees to have a sense of agency that can help mediate fear and anxiety. Allow people to contribute to solution finding. Be open. Practice nimble thinking and creativity. This will keep you in a position of being an ally to your staff and the organization. We need to be on the same team. We will get more with collaboration versus compliance. It is not ideal to push someone back to work when we can shepherd, lead, and guide with empathy, thoughtfulness, and good planning.
3) Inspire Employees through Purpose and Connection
The next area of focus is for employees to re-commit to their work. We can do this through the practice of clarifying goals, purpose, and expectations. We can also set up “re-launch crews” — small teams that can provide a sense of community. Emerging from the isolation will be easier to navigate if we each have a small unit that provides clear communication, mentoring, and support.
4) Build and Share a Contingency Plan
Another consideration is the contingency plan. People do not want to be blindsided again. You need to demonstrate your confidence to lead in chaos. Ensure you have a contingency plan that is clear, direct, and well developed. We do not want to be building the airplane while we are flying.
What we do know is that second and third waves are expected. What we have gleaned from historical pandemic records is that after-shocks and resurgences are inevitable. It is important to keep in perspective as we are planning for re-entry that we are still not out of the first wave yet. So, it is fundamental that our teams know what happens if we are recalled home again. What will that look like? Plan for as much as you possibly can. Plans create a sense of predictability even in unpredictable times.
5) Honour and Respect Your Workforce
Our greatest chance for a positive re-entry is honouring and respecting your work force as the people they are. Everyone has traversed a difficult path these past few months. People are tired, weary, and unsettled. As leaders, so are we. But we are all capable of bouncing back. We are resilient. We adapt. We will reclaim our work and our lives. We will rise to meet the new season and challenges. It is in our nature to adapt to struggle. We are hard wired to find a way through challenges. We are natural born problem solvers. We will figure this out.
I like to reflect on what Emerson writes, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” We are strong, capable, and well equipped to meet this difficult season. We will get to the other side of COVID-19. We will become knowledge holders of what COVID-19 was like in 2020.
Invest in your re-entry plan. Recognize that your people have gone through a difficult time. Test readiness. Plan accordingly. And be that leader who values productivity and personal wellness. It is amazing to see what people will do for a leader they believe in.
Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe is a multi-award-winning psychology and education instructor who specializes in resiliency, navigating stress and change, and personal wellness in the workplace.