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How to Navigate the Shifting Target of Return to Work

3 questions the best leaders ask themselves daily to navigate the shifting reality of remote work vs. return to work.

Over the past few months, many organizations have started implementing return to office strategies. But now, with stagnating vaccination rates and the delta variant causing increases in COVID-19 cases nationwide, some are reporting this new surge could end the 5-day office week and change the way we work forever.

Several big players are delaying return to work planning again, some are letting many become permanent remote workers, many are requiring masks in workplaces again, and leaders are debating whether they can require vaccinations. Furthermore, the longer people work from home, the more demand continues to rise for long-term flexibility. And the purpose of the office has shifted: rather than coming to work to finish tasks, many workers now report the main benefit is to build relationships. Employees are leaving their organizations in mass, and those that are not addressing employee concerns are being hit the worst. In sum, on top of an already complicated business environment, leaders and HR teams are also navigating an unprecedented amount of internal complexity.  

A consistent theme has emerged in this continuously changing environment: no one has all the right answers, and everyone is doing their best to make plans based on a moving target. Those that are best able to handle the change and uncertainty will regularly ask themselves three questions:

  • Am I being flexible enough?
    1. Have I demonstrated that I am open to changing directions based on new information?
    2. Have I been willing to accept future visions for the workplace other than my own?
    3. Am I willing to question all assumptions I hold today to build the right future strategy and structure for the organization and its workers?
  • Am I communicating enough?
    1. Have I created transparency about return-to-work planning through simple, clear, and repetitive messages?
    2. Have I given people a place to go (e.g., a dashboard or list) to understand at a glance our plan today, how it has changed over time, and what we are considering changing?
    3. Do all employees understand why each decision is made?
  • Am I demonstrating compassionate leadership?
    1. Do employees feel a sense of psychological safety and an environment of belonging and inclusion?
    2. Am I taking care of my people through listening and checking in?
    3. Am I role modeling self-care and expressing the importance and acceptance for all to focus on personal wellness (e.g., time off, boundaries between work and non-work)?

The longer people work from home, the more demand continues to rise for long-term flexibility.

The flexibility and communication strategies identified above require excellent change management practices. Success will rest largely on the ability to create consistent messaging (do not shake it up) that helps people quickly see what is changing and why. No effort will be executed perfectly, and there will be times when the message gets blurred or lost in the process. During these times, it is important to demonstrate vulnerability and admit that communication did not go as planned to maintain trust and safety. Finally, remember that only when you take care of yourself are you able to show up your best for the organization and others. There is no one right answer when deciding if and how to bring workers back together, and flexibility, communication, and compassion are key to continuing to make the best decisions based on changing information and targets.  

To hear more about this topic, check out our Trendlines podcast where consultants Erin Crask and Lance Andrews interview Matt Crayne, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management at the University at Albany School of Business, about his work related to crisis leadership and return to work.

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Erin Lazarus

Erin Lazarus is a people science enthusiast and Industrial-Organizational Psychology leader focused on building teams that provide the opportunity for every person to work at their highest point of contribution. She leads teams to design powerful candidate and employee experiences that allow organizations to harness the power of their people. Her teams partner with business leaders using science and data to enhance people strategy in areas including employee selection, workplace assessment, organizational culture, employee engagement, performance management, succession planning, and leadership development. At SHL, Erin consults with clients to transform productivity through deeper people insight.

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