Too soon for inappropriate COVID-19 jokes? Yes. Too soon to start booking your holiday abroad? Yes. Too soon to begin planning for your team to regroup? No!
Many parts of the world are beginning to return to a new normal. Factories are operating at full capacity, public transport is running, retail stores are trading, schools are opening and workers are getting back together face-to-face. It is with hope and optimism that we will see the same happening here in the UK as we take back control from COVID-19.
However, this recovery process comes with significant risk, and there are many dangerous assumptions that could be made, such as:
- A good recovery is a fast recovery: There will be pressure to recover from the pandemic as fast as possible. Although understandable, this is the wrong approach. People need space and time in order to recover and regroup.
- People will find it easy to slip back into the same ways of working: Not one person will be unaffected by the experiences of the last few months, and for many, there will be ongoing stress and anxiety to cope with. Life will be different for all of us, and we need to learn to be comfortable in this new way of being.
- Things will go back to how they were before: They won’t; organisations will operate differently, and people will either do different work or work differently. A VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world is here to stay.
- Relationships and organisational cultures will be stronger: This will only be true if we recognise the damage that our relationships and cultures may have suffered from lockdown. A crisis amplifies pre-existing strengths, weaknesses and relationship dynamics. Keep in mind that everyone will need to rebuild psychological safety and trust — slowly, carefully and with kindness.
I’ve witnessed some examples of wonderful leadership throughout this crisis, however, I have also observed — and even been the perpetrator of — some less wonderful leadership examples. Let’s have empathy for others and believe that people mostly behave with good intent, even if the result is difficult or wrong.
The need for strong leadership will only increase as we help ourselves and our people to navigate the new normal. As a colleague reminded me recently, ‘You can’t change the wind, but you must set your sails accordingly.’ In light of this, here is a four-step approach for leaders:
1. Pre-empt, plan and prepare
It is vital that team leaders consider how they and their teams will be feeling upon returning to the workplace, including asking questions such as:
- How do I help my team to make sense of this new reality?
- Has our role and purpose changed?
- Do I actually know how people are feeling?
- What challenges has the team faced that need addressing?
- Do any members of my team need specialist help or counselling?
- What physical distancing will need to be in place?
- What have we learned from this experience?
2. Let the leaders lead
Organisations need to make sure that their leaders are in a great place to lead others. Physical energy is needed to manage emotional energy. One way to do this is to provide access to coaches who can guide leaders in their preparations. It is likely that leaders will have to step into the space of coach, mentor and shoulder for their own teams, but many of them will have the same worries and concerns as their people. It is essential that they have access to the same support.
Organisations must also give leaders space to help their people reconnect at a human level. There will be pressure to recover quickly, putting strain on leaders to manage rather than lead. Organisations should give them the capacity to create time, energy and space to process and reflect before diving into tomorrow.
3. Bring teams together with care and empathy
When the time arrives for the team to be in the same room, team leaders need to set aside the first half of the day to achieve the following:
- Unpack the experiences we have all gone and are still going through.
- Create psychological safety so that people can share.
- Identify the support each person needs from his or her colleagues.
- Seek out the key learnings to take into the future.
- Plan and commit.
4. Have fun!
This will be the time to gather, enjoy each other’s company and learn how to be together again. There is no need to wrap it up with management-speak; just be together for the sake of being together — and do it away from the office, in the outdoors.
Bringing teams together like this is the start of a longer process, not the end. Keep checking in, coaching and creating space for people to feel comfortable and secure in this new normal.
Phil Holdsworth is Regional Head of Consulting at Impact New Zealand. You can connect with him here.