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Six Strategies for Leading in a Return-to-Work World

Increase your odds of success in this new era.

Most people would agree that 2020 was a rough year, but there’s one group that felt the pain in a unique way: Leaders. While they were personally struggling to process the uncertainty of the pandemic, they were also bombarded with information about how to help their team members navigate the situation. They felt responsible for monitoring the well-being of their employees and scrambling to meet business objectives. Their own fears and concerns had to be set aside.

Enter 2021 and the possibility of returning to some sort of “business as usual.” For many companies, this will likely involve a hybrid work environment, where some employees continue working remotely and others come back into the office. It’s an all-new territory, and leaders will once again be on the front lines to guide their teams toward the new normal—whatever that looks like.

As a leader, you may be feeling the full weight of this stress. It’s understandable. You’re already worn down from last year, and the new wave of challenges is about to hit hard. What steps can you take to increase your odds of success in this new era?

First, if you are a senior leader or directly responsible for forming a return-to-work plan, get strategic about your decisions.

Knowing how much you have asked of your leaders this year, you can take some of the pressure off by giving them a detailed roadmap. Craft a solid blueprint that doesn’t leave them grasping for answers or wondering about the protocol.

Clearly document which positions are essential as in-person roles and which ones could be handled effectively by someone working from home. Plus, think through the more complex scenarios that might come up, and be prepared to define some middle ground. This blueprint should have guardrails to protect the company, but also include options that will allow for flexibility.

Second, seek out advice from your peers who have already embarked on managing in a hybrid situation.

Ask specific questions. What have you done to ensure that remote employees don’t feel left out? What tools have been most successful to build engagement and morale when team members are rarely in the same place at the same time? Any suggestions they can provide will help you shorten the learning curve and avoid any missteps during the hybrid shuffle.

Third, consider holding a joint session that loops your employees into the discussion.

Encourage them to talk candidly about the pros and cons of remaining remote versus going back into the office. What are the implications for them, their families, the company, and your customers? Be sensitive to the nuances of their input, working to distinguish between their preferences and their needs. Understanding your team members’ concerns and thought processes will help you develop a targeted plan for your team.

Best of all, when your employees feel like they are part of the conversation, they are more likely to get on board with decisions made and share ownership for the new work structure. They’ll also see the benefits of being flexible in the event the final plans don’t align with their personal preferences.

Fourth, be explicit about the norms and expectations associated with your hybrid environment.

Don’t leave anything up to chance. Establish parameters for meeting attendance, communication channels, and decision-making protocol. Who should get copied on the emails? Who needs to be in the Zoom meetings? When is it appropriate to call or text directly? Those guidelines will help to even the playing field for team members sitting in their offices and the ones in their kitchens.

Fifth, create your own touchpoints.

Now, more than ever before, you’ll want to create an open line of dialogue with your team members—about their projects, their well-being, and their feelings about the hybrid work environment. Establishing plenty of opportunities for conversations will ensure that you know whether the office setup you’ve established is working or needs adjustments. You might consider frequent one-on-one check-ins, holding “open” office hours virtually, or daily huddles. The key to success with those? Do more listening than talking. By incorporating repetitive touchpoints for communication, you can work to build trust while sharing and reinforcing the company’s values—tasks that are much more difficult with a scattered workforce.

Finally, don’t try to go it alone.

During times of chaos, you may feel like you are solely responsible for supporting your team members and helping everyone else hold it together. You need and deserve support, too. Make sure you take time to evaluate how you are handling the situation. Reach out to a trusted advisor to talk about the unique challenges you are facing. You might even make a plan to touch base with a colleague at the end of each day or week to exchange thoughts and get help putting some structure around your thinking.

No doubt about it, leaders are moving into a post-pandemic future with plenty of unknowns. It’s a tough balancing act: meeting business goals and monitoring employee well-being without succumbing to each team member’s personal wishes and preferences. By proactively incorporating a solid plan, leaders can be better positioned to perform effectively and achieve success, while taking care of their team members and themselves.

What about you? What are your thoughts on how to best prepare for a hybrid work environment? What are you doing that has worked so far? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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