Ready or not, some companies are calling their workers back to the office. In our latest look at how Covid-19 has reshaped the workplace, we’re exploring the potential pitfalls managers and employees will face as conditions change. (If you missed the first article in the series, find out more about the 5 models one expert has identified for the post-pandemic workplace.) Here’s a look at the top issues to consider as you and your team return to the office.Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Ron Carucci, the co-founder and managing partner at management consultancy Navalent, lays out a roadmap for returning to the office. Drawing on his decades of experience working with CEOs and other C-suite executives, Carucci focuses on how leaders can take the pulse of their team and work to soothe anxieties and conflicts that may arise.
First and foremost, it’s critical to take it slow. The “new normal” isn’t going to take shape right away:
“When we transitioned to WFH several months ago, there were few precedents guiding us. Figuring out how to turn dining rooms into offices and basements into classrooms — all this was foreign. Feeling “lost in the unfamiliar” made sense, and as our adrenaline kicked in, we became more resourceful, creative, and eventually, adapted. But, even when it is induced by stress or necessity, creativity often feels rewarding. When we conquer something we’ve never done, we feel a sense of pride, not just for the result, but also for overcoming our fear and inexperience in doing so.”
Carucci points out that many of our work behaviors are automatic habits, especially the way we enter and leave the office. All of that is going to feel different in a post-Covid world, and what used to be a familiar routine will be completely different. We may expect to feel a certain way as we reenter our former workspaces and greet colleagues we haven’t seen in a long time only be overwhelmed by the things that have changed in the last year and a half.
“When we go back to work, however, we will expect a return to the familiar. Our brains have an autopilot mode that is comprised of shortcuts we’ve made to help us undertake routine tasks with minimal mental effort. That’s why you can drive to work without ever remembering how you got there. However, back at the office, if your brain reaches for the autopilot version of a familiar routine, it will get short-circuited by your new reality.”
Instead of shutting down when your autopilot shorts out, Carucci advises taking a few deep breaths before giving in to panic “Where you park, having your temperature taken, where your desk is situated, standing six feet apart from people in line for the coffee pot, and wearing PPE are just some practices that will contradict what your brain expects. It may only take ten seconds to adjust, but that shift requires enormous mental energy, and you may be making it many times a day for the first few weeks back.
Just giving yourself a few weeks to adjust before “taking the temperature” of your new work situation could be enough to get you over the adjustment hump. Then again, more robust strategies may be needed to get you feeling comfortable at work again.
Carucci offers a number of actionable strategies that managers can use to stay balanced and help their teams adjust to a fast-changing workplace:
“You should expect the protocols your company has in place to shift over time. New information and changing conditions, sometimes through trial-and-error, will require your company to adapt, sometimes on the fly,” Carucci writes.
“Manage your expectations with patience and flexibility so that each time something changes, you don’t become irritated or nervous. Try not to perceive change as your company “not knowing what they are doing.” More often, it’s a positive sign when organizations are open to learning and improvement, even if they must do it as they go.”
Bottom line, think of the time that has already elapsed during the pandemic and the time ahead as a marathon, not a sprint. As policies evolve, embrace the spirit of change — and be patient with yourself while you’re at it.
Some companies still subscribe to the so-called mushroom culture model, where employees are kept in the dark and fed bullshit. The worst thing you can do as a manager is lie to or mislead your employees! It’s OK to be transparent with them, even when there’s a lack of information and direction from your own manager.
“If you lead others, they will assume you have all the answers about new policies and protocols, and you may get asked questions for which no satisfying answer exists. Learning to provide honest responses will be key to showing good leadership. Proactively alert people to any impending changes you hear about, and let people know what you are doing to stay informed on their behalf. By effectively managing others’ expectations, you help ensure they don’t become obstacles to an already complicated transition,” Carucci writes.
Remember what we said about pacing yourself in the pandemic-era workplace? Carucci suggests keeping the bigger narrative in mind — how do you want to feel about your actions during an unprecedented time in your career?
“The transition to whatever the “next normal” is will be laden with unknown bumps and possibilities. Much of that is out of our control. Further, the transition will feel different for each of us. Our highs and lows won’t always match those of others. What we can manage is our responses to our transition, and how we support others through theirs. When the transition feels discouraging, for example, have a prompt to restore hope.”
Carucci suggests a simple framing exercise that can shape your attitude. You can also use the prompt as a jumping-off point for a team discussion.
“Try this question: “A year from now, if someone asks how living through Covid-19 changed me for the better, how do I want to answer?” Regardless of the difficulties you’ve suffered, you get to decide how this shapes the person you want to become. Ponder those possibilities every day, and allow them to bolster hope when you need it.”
Are you ready to return to the office? Whether you’re prepared or not, flexibility is more important than ever in today’s fast-shifting corporate landscape. At Blueground, we prioritize flexibility for our guests and our own workforce. All of our turnkey furnished apartments in 15 cities have discrete spaces for life and work, and we have partnerships with food and grocery delivery services, transportation providers, and wellness apps to make it even easier for your employees to maintain work-life balance.