Too feral for the office? Ten tips for leaders to help teams embrace life back at work

Returning to the office following lockdown may seem like a daunting task for all concerned, but there are some simple ways we can help teams embrace the joy of being back at work in our new normality, according to Susy Roberts

Going back into the office for the first time after the long pandemic-enforced break may feel like the first day back at school. But instead of returning from six weeks of bucolic fun – playing out on bikes, splashing around in rivers or jetting off on a package holiday – we’re coming back from and to a very different set of circumstances.

There’s unlikely to be any member of the team who hasn’t been touched by tragedy in some way. We are bereaved, we are recovering from illness, we are financially insecure, we are experiencing relationship breakdowns. Some of us are already on the starting blocks, waiting for the crack of the pistol to signal the resumption of normality. Others have found the last 15 months convenient and comfortable, safe in cocoons that we’re not yet ready to emerge from.

For leaders, throwing open the doors and welcoming back the masses isn’t as simple as holding an assembly with a few rousing hymns. We need to focus on the business tasks in hand while also acknowledging and allowing for the personal issues the pandemic has thrust upon us. It may seem like a daunting task for all concerned, but there are some simple ways we can help teams embrace the joy of being back at work in our new normality. 

Set the scene

Teachers don’t turn up on the first day of term with everything magically in place, and neither should leaders. Opening up the workplace, whether it’s a small office or a large building open to the public, requires some careful pandemic planning. As well as following government guidelines on safely re-opening and running workplaces, think about things like cutlery and crockery in the kitchen, shared salt and pepper shakers, communal condiments and coffee jars.

Ideally, all of these things should go. Instead, consider a welcome pack with an environmentally friendly set of individual crockery and cutlery (plate, bowl, mug, knife, fork and spoon) – bamboo is a great idea. Ask people to bring in their own individual supplies of any previously shared groceries: or, better still, encourage them to leave their desks and go out for lunch. A negotiated discount with a local eatery could be a good way to spend budgets saved on in-house catering from the last year and boost local business.

Have a settling in day

It’s inevitable that the first day will be emotional, so embrace it. Don’t try and enforce a strict routine on the first day back or bombard people with presentations and new targets. Use the day to get a feel for how people are reacting to being back at work. Are they nervous, sad, stressed? Everyone will have their own experience of the last year and while some will be embracing being back at work, others will be finding it difficult. Use your leadership skills and empathy to quietly identify any issues and make a note to address them with people individually. 

Clarify the new rules

Strictly enforced productivity targets may be inadvisable on day one, but it is important to clarify the new way of working. With social distancing, mask wearing, bathroom etiquette and different doors for entering and leaving, it’s a whole new set of rules that require a new induction on health, safety and security. Establish the rules and frameworks, make sure everyone is aware of what applies to them and don’t leave anything to chance. 

Ask for opinions

When you’re loading people with new information, it’s essential to get their feedback. A carefully planned routine may work on paper, but those who are living the process may flag a critical issue that’s been overlooked. Get everything out in the open and listen carefully to people’s opinions. This will require strong, positive leadership to separate the conspiracy theorists from those with valid concerns. 

Establish priorities

In the midst of all the excitement, we can’t forget the reason we’re all back in work. Pushing people to be productive on day one may be counter-productive, but establishing business priorities will gently remind them of their purpose. What’s changed over the last year? What are the organisational goals and how do you plan to achieve them? Reminding people that they’re an essential part of operations will gently focus their attention on the tasks in hand. 

Gather teams together

After so long apart and all communications being online, people need time to get to know each other again. After the initial flurry of introductions are over, set aside some team time. Again, it’s not about setting targets or pushing people to make up for lost time. Let them naturally find their place on the team, talk about what’s happened over the last year and air any concerns they have. Our individual circumstances may be different but we all have a shared experience, so let people bond over that while slowly re-establishing their professional identities. 

Hold one-to-ones

As soon as is feasible, arrange in-person one-to-ones for every member of the team and their team leader. There are likely to be some distressing circumstances behind the smiles, so leaders need to be fully prepared to identify and deal with the issues they’ll be facing. Empathy is essential, and this needs to be a directive that comes straight from the top. 

Senior leaders can create a positive culture by leading by example. Ensure the senior leadership team is equipped with the skills they need to lead positively, and that they in turn can pass those skills down through the layers of management. Now is not the time for ruling with a rod of iron. One-to-ones should be gentle conversations, not a one-sided list of instructions.

Stay flexible

When people have continued to deliver in the face of disruption, telling them you can’t be flexible now the office is open again will cause resentment. How do people feel now about office etiquette? After working from home for so long, some may find it uncomfortable to sit in a stiff suit, while others may relish the idea of dressing up again. Flexible working hours may be a priority for some, while others may crave routine. Use the opportunity for a consultation on working practices and gaining valuable feedback and insight into how people want to work.

Keep it social

The first day back at work is going to be exhilarating and exhausting, even if we don’t have deadlines to meet. End the day with a fun social event to cement our re-discovered relationships and send everyone home on a positive note. Order in pizzas and play some music, or take everyone to the nearest pub for a post-work drink. If people can unwind together and let off some steam before they go home, they’ll be much more inclined to look forward to coming back the next day.

Maintain the status quo

We’ve proved we can carry on in the face of adversity. We’ve proved we can be flexible and accommodating. We’ve proved we can rise to the occasion when it’s required of us. Let’s keep sight of that. Trust people to do the jobs they’ve been hired for and let’s use this time as an opportunity for positive change. 

Susy Roberts is an executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts.

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