By Corry Robertson

Kudos to the leaders guiding their employees through the return to work after the Covid era. I am thrilled as I observe how companies are preparing to welcome their employees back to the office.

So many people are looking forward to the experience and for good reasons.

They want to see their work-family again.

They feel more productive at the office.

They love their families but being in close quarters 24/7 causes some strain on even the best relationships.

They want a change of scenery.

And so many more reasons, I’m sure.

But there are still a lot of questions about the New Normal that don’t have answers yet. For example:

  • What policies will be put in place for vaccinations?
  • What policies will be put in place for wearing masks?
  • What policies will be put in place for social distancing?
  • Will handshakes become a thing of the past? Hugs at work?
  • How will it be handled when someone comes to work sick or starts showing symptoms at work?

Ambiguity around these questions will not only take the joy out of returning to the office, but will lead to conflict, tension, misunderstandings, and damaged relationships.

Just like dry kindling waiting for a match, ambiguity will cause fires – fires made up of expensive and painful damage to productivity, engagement, and collaboration.

When people feel their health and safety are in danger, they get tense, to say the least.

When people feel they are being controlled or being forced to do something they don’t agree with, conflict arises.

That’s the dry kindling wood for a workplace fire.

When people with these different opinions around what it means to protect health and liberties are put together in the same room and faced with ambiguity from their leaders…that’s the match that lights the fire.

Replacing ambiguity with clarity and direction is the next workplace challenge of the Covid era and it will take strong, intelligent, and socially aware leaders to usher people through.

In preparation for the return to work, a big theme for executive coaching these days has been on two major topics: Change Management and Psychological Safety.

Understanding these 2 topics can help guide leaders to reduce ambiguity around the return to work. Here’s what you can do as a leader to prepare:

Change Management

When I was certified in Change Management with ProSci, I loved their ADKAR model and I strongly recommend it.

You can utilize the ADKAR model in the post-Covid return to work scenario to help you manage change by applying each of these concepts to your leadership decisions:

A: Awareness: You need a strong and consistent communication strategy to make sure everyone knows the policies of the New Normal.

D: Desire. People have to want to adopt the policies, so leaders need to make sure people see how this is a good thing for them personally.

K: Knowledge This is the training and development piece. People need to know how to succeed in the new normal.

A: Ability. People need to be able to succeed. What resources will be provided to ensure winning conditions?

R: Reinforcement: this means reinforcement on all fronts: reinforcement of the communication strategy, the training strategy, check-in on the motivation levels of the employees and check-in on the resources being provided and updated.

Reinforcement also means that rewards and consequences are clearly communicated as part of the communication strategy AND that the managers are well aware of their scope of authority to give rewards and dole out consequences appropriate for their level and to know how to escalate up to the next level cleanly. Reinforcement needs to last for as long as it takes for the change to be a part of the DNA of the organization – so don’t rush it.

Trust and Psychological Safety

The second hot topic is trust and psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson, organizational behavioral scientist, and professor at Harvard Business School was the one who first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams back in 1999.

In her book “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” Edmondson describes psychological safety as “a shared belief held by individuals that their team is a safe place for interpersonal risk-taking.”

She also explains that team members who feel safe “feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

In the “Return To The Office Era”, stepping foot into the office should not feel like a risk that needs taking!

I would like to add to this that psychological safety also means that employees can be transparent with their team and leaders about the challenges that the transition may be causing and the fears that they may have for their health or their liberties – and that those concerns should be taken seriously.

Teams that have high levels of trust and psychological safety are more effective, more engaged, more energetic, and not only are they more likely to achieve optimal levels of performance…they are more likely to be able to sustain those high levels.

Lack of trust and safety is the source of massive stress and stress has a destructive impact on everything from engagement to productivity to creativity to the ability to manage conflict and more and more and more.

Low psychological safety can cause your employees to hide their mistakes, keep their mouths shut when they have legitimate concerns and cover-up for their peers.

Imagine the long-term damage this can cause your company.

Change Management strategies and Psychological Safety strategies are not bandaids or quick fixes.

They are as profound, robust, powerful, and critical to your company’s success as research and development, your business plan, your sales strategy, your marketing strategy, and your financial plan.

Treat them with the same reverence.

Coaching as a Leadership Style

It’s one thing to understand leadership theory and to create strategies based on the theory.

It’s another thing entirely to communicate them to people and see them through with success.

The latter is where the rubber hits the road. It takes leadership skills, but even more importantly, it takes coaching skills.

And let me be perfectly clear…coaching is not coddling.

Coaching is about believing that people are complete, resourceful, and whole. That means you believe they are strong and capable of resilience and you expect them to step up.

Coaching is about knowing these values to be true and being able to bring them out in your people.

Leaders, it’s not all on you.

Returning to the new normal at work is going to call on all of us to be brave because change always takes courage from everyone.

All people, individual contributors included, will have to believe in their own resilience and do their part in making the transition smooth.

Each member of the workforce has a leadership role to play in the physical and psychological safety of everyone else, whether they have direct reports or not.

Leaders, what IS on you is to create winning conditions which means that you design and lead a culture where change can happen in a physically and psychologically safe place.

This doesn’t happen on its own.

Judging from the topics that leaders are bringing to their coaching calls these days, I know firsthand that people are looking for ways to build strong cultures based on well-thought-out, intelligent culture strategies.

Change management, trust, and psychological safety strategies paired with leadership coaching skills are the tools necessary to manage and thrive in this post-Covid return to work era.