What happens next? Four tips to guiding displaced teams back to the office

Posted 04/24/20 Bruce Nix

I’ve been working in the business agility space for more than 20 years. And although much has changed in that time, no change has come quite as rapidly as the pandemic-induced adjustments businesses across the country have had to make in the spring of 2020.

Suddenly, most questions I get revolve around how to best work now in the remote environment or how to handle the sudden need for furloughs or layoffs. And there are countless discussions, webinars, and articles on those subjects.

The question that seems to be lacking, though, is how we’ll approach work when this is “over.”

Today’s environment reminds me of going to a concert: There’s a lot of activity and loud noise, but when it’s over, you’re left with a ringing in your ears for a day or so. Once businesses are able to return to some sense of normalcy, they’ll likely still feel the pandemic’s effects and wonder how to stop the ringing.

Here are four key concepts to help your teams find normalcy, stability, and forward momentum once we start transitioning to our “new normal.”

Set the vision and stay focused.

One of the most important things a leader can do is set a common vision and empower teams around it. As your teams return to work (or to the office) – and especially if you’re a team leader – you should craft this vision and prepare for how to best share and communicate it.

One way to do this is through OKRs (objectives and key results), which is a goal-setting system used by Google and other leading companies. It is a simple approach to create alignment and engagement around measurable goals.

But don’t just establish the vision, keep it at the forefront. In the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath, Col. Tom Kolditz is quoted as saying the army has an expression of “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The pandemic events we’re experiencing today illustrate that concept perfectly, although an appropriate rephrasing may be “no sales plan survives contact with today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment.”

Don’t continue to pursue the plan you had before COVID-19 just because it was already in progress. Rather, evaluate whether it still makes sense. Saying no to projects that no longer add value will pay dividends in productivity and remove the white noise of superfluous work.

Let go of the old rules.

If you want your team to rally around your vision, embrace the word “most.” Don’t ask what’s more important. Consider the most important outcome you’d like to achieve to move forward. Now, ask “what is the most important action we must take today to move us closer to that outcome?”

What often gets in the way of focusing is an outdated or inhibiting process. If there’s a certain process you didn’t need while you worked remotely, chances are you don’t need it when you return to the office.

When considering those outdated processes, it’s a good time to run a fun team exercise called “Kill A Stupid Rule.” It’s a great way to communicate that you’re serious about changing the future and getting team feedback while doing it.

Create psychological safety.

It may be easy to fall back into a “command and control” management style. But it’s important to use situational awareness to understand whether teams need to be directed or if they can thrive with mentoring and guidance.

Recognizing each team’s needs requires, above all, empathy. And it’s not always easy! To effectively practice empathy after the noise has begun to quiet, pretend the person you’re interacting with is a close friend or family member who was affected by the COVID-19 experience. In all likelihood, the person in front of you has been affected in some way. Now, ask yourself how you’re contributing to the person’s current emotional and psychological state and what you can do to lessen the anxiety he or she may feel.

Ultimately, creating psychological safety should be of the utmost importance. Don’t misunderstand this term as a sense of ease and coziness. It’s really about being candid with your teams about what’s happening, acknowledging the impacts to people and the business, and sharing what you’re doing to quiet the noise.

Be a facilitator, not a dictator.

There will undoubtedly be a stream of emails and meetings following a return to the office. But pushing processes and updates down from the top without moderating feedback will only create a sense of chaos and desperation.

Try to understand how your team’s motivations have changed. Due to the circumstances, put some distance between your personal biases and the goals you hope to achieve. A great exercise to conduct that will help you understand the new perspectives of your people is Moving Motivators. Having an experienced facilitator conduct this for you and your teams is a great way to uncover the new motivations that may exist.

Some experts believe that by 2025, up to 70% of employees will work remotely at least five days per month. With that in mind, the adjustments you make now may be necessary in the long term, too. Ultimately, the difference between an indifferent workforce and an engaged one will come down to the example set by leadership.

Follow these four steps to ensure a smooth, successful transition as your teams come back to the office: Set the vision. Adapt your style. Be proactive in removing noise. Stay focused on the right outcomes. And put your people first.

Learn more about Bruce here.