Too soon for inappropriate COVID-19 jokes? Yes. Too soon to start ignoring government guidelines? Yes. Too soon to start booking your next overseas holiday? Yes.
Too soon to start planning for your team to regroup? No!
China and other parts of Asia are beginning to return to a new normal. Factories are operating at full capacity, public transport is back online, retail stores are trading, schools are opening and workers are getting back together face to face. It is with hope and optimism that we will see the same happening in other parts of the world as countries take back control from COVID-19.
However, there is a significant risk as this recovery happens: We may make too many false assumptions, such as:
A good recovery is a fast recovery: There will be pressure to try to recover from the COVID-19 crisis as quickly as possible. This tendency is understandable, but it is the wrong approach. People need to have space and time to recover and regroup.
People will find it easy to slip back into the same ways of working: Not one person will be unaffected by the experiences of the last few months, and for many, there will be ongoing stress and anxiety to cope with. It will be different for all of us, and we need to learn how to become comfortable in this new way of being.
Things will go back to how they were before: They won’t. We will have a new normal. One, two or three years from now, the world will still be very different from how it was at the start of 2020. Organizations will be operating differently, and people will either be doing different work or doing work differently. A VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world is here to stay.
Relationships and organizational cultures will be stronger: This statement will only be true if we recognize and pay attention to the damage that our relationships and cultures may have suffered from isolation and the resentment, fear and blame it can breed. A crisis amplifies preexisting strengths, weaknesses and relationship dynamics. Recognize that everyone will need to rebuild psychological safety and trust — slowly, carefully and with kindness.
Through client conversations and in the media, I’ve witnessed many wonderful leadership moments. However, I have also observed — and even been the perpetrator of — some not-so-wonderful leadership moments. Let’s have empathy for others and believe that people mostly behave with good intent, even if the result is difficult or downright wrong.
As you and your organization regroup, the need for strong leadership will not diminish. In fact, it will increase significantly as we help ourselves and our people to navigate the new normal. As a colleague reminded me recently, “You can’t change the wind, but you must set your sails accordingly.” Detailed here is a four-step approach for leaders:
1. Preempt, Plan and Prepare
It is critical that team leaders think about how they and their teams will be feeling upon returning to a physical workplace, including asking questions such as:
- How do I help my team make sense of this new reality?
- What is our role and purpose as a team? Has it changed?
- What does the immediate and medium term look like?
- Do I really know how people are feeling?
- What do people need right now to know they are being valued and are adding value?
- What (if any) issues or challenges has the team faced that need addressing?
- Do any of my people need specialist help or counseling?
- What physical distancing will need to be in place?
- Will the entire team be back together, or will some still be working virtually?
- How are we going to organize and work together in the new normal?
- What have we learned from this experience?
- How can we capture the good and let go of the bad?
2. Let the Leaders Lead
Organizations need to ensure that their leaders are in a great place to lead others. People need physical energy to manage emotional energy. What is in place to help managers be in the best physical and emotional condition to help others?
Provide access to coaches (external or internal) who can guide leaders in preempting, planning and preparing. It is likely that they will step into the space of coach, mentor and shoulder for their own teams, but many leaders will have the same worries and concerns as their people. It is essential that they have access to the same support.
Organizations must also give leaders space to help their people reconnect at a human level. There will be pressure to recover quickly and get on with the getting on — thereby putting pressure on your leaders to manage rather than lead. Organizations should find ways to give them the capacity to create time, energy and space to process and reflect before diving into tomorrow.
3. Bring Teams Together With Care and Empathy
When the time arrives for the team to be in the same room (physically distanced, of course), team leaders need to set aside the first half of the day for the following tasks:
- Unpack — both as a team and as individuals — the unique experience we have all gone and are still going through.
- Create psychological safety so that people can share.
- Identify the challenges the team faces and the support each person needs from his or her colleagues.
- Seek and find the best moments and key learnings to take into the future.
- Plan and commit.
4. Have Fun!
This will be the time to gather to simply enjoy each other’s company and learn how to be together again. There is no need to wrap it up with management-speak; just be together for the sake of being together — and do it away from the office, in the outdoors.
Bringing teams together in this way is the beginning of a process, not the end. Keep checking in, coaching and creating space for people to become comfortable and feel secure in this new normal.