Remember the first day of kindergarten? If you were like many kids, it was likely fraught with emotion, uncertainty, and excitement all at once. According to a recent survey of professionals by organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry, 50% admit they are fearful of going back due to health concerns, even though 75% believe their employer will create a safe and healthy work environment.
“The fear out there is real,” says Brad Deutser, CEO of Deutser Clarity Institute, a leadership and organizational learning services provider. “Psychological safety is lacking. Prior to COVID-19, employees had a lot more control. Today it’s shifted, and coming back can increase their fear not just due to health and wellness with interactions, but about the financial stability and future of the company.”
Easing employees back slowly can help, and employers can even take a few tips from kindergarten teachers to prepare their team for a successful transition.
Start Communication Now
In kindergarten, some teachers contact families before the first day of school to calm nerves and help the student know what to expect. Employers should do this too.
“Reach out long before they come back to work, and tell them what you’re doing to make the environment safe,” says Deutser, adding that you should be more open than before. “Messages should come from the CEO and the direct manager. Establishing a cascading communication platform can help build a bridge from where they are, which is fearful, to where they need to be, which is productive and engaged.”
Prepare employees for the new normal with pictures and descriptions of the updated environment, letting them know how the workplace will look and feel. Employees want information, says Deutser. If employers don’t give it to them, they’ll find it somewhere else, and that information could be inaccurate.
“If they have to wonder, it creates a barrier, and they’ll wonder if they still fit,” he says.
But don’t ask for opinions, advises Deutser. “Some companies are doing that prior to having employees return, and it can create a mess,” he says. “Employees need to trust your expertise and knowledge. They want you to have done the thinking and work.”
Start on a Wednesday
For many of us, working from home made the days start to blur, with no distinction between weekdays and weekends. While it can seem natural to start back on a Monday, Deutser is in favor of “kinder-starts,” starting the workday for employees on a Wednesday.
“Leaders can come in a few days before, like teachers do,” he says. “Then bring the workforce back on Wednesday to ease them back with a short week before the first full week of work.”
Consider the first day back like the first day of a school year, and use it as a chance to fundamentally rethink and re-tether the organization to things that are most important. This will require re-onboarding and reorienting everyone, says Deutser.
“Onboarding isn’t just for new people now; the workplace will not be the same for everyone,” he says. “The environment will likely be fundamentally different as will the psyche of employees. You need a different set of rules.”
Take the opportunity to reorient employees around the values and behavior of the organization. “It’s a huge opportunity to reset the bar,” says Deutser.
Set Housekeeping Rules
Your workplace will likely include new procedures and protocols around health, but being conscious throughout the day shouldn’t fall on one individual, says Deutser. Instead, establish a building collective spirit, and foster that spirit with an all-in-this-together attitude.
Some companies are putting workplace cleaning off on a director of hygiene, but Deutser says this can be a mistake. “That’s taking away accountability on the front lines,” he says. “That culture is not consistent with what you need to be successful for reentry. Know how you deal with COVID, and set up the culture that everyone is responsible.”
Make the First Back Day Special
Half of employees are looking forward to the camaraderie with colleagues when they return, according to the Korn Ferry survey, and the first day back will likely be filled with some joy in addition to fear. Make it special. Deutser suggests leaving employees a handwritten note on their desks, saying, “Welcome back.”
“You want people to be excited,” he says. “They probably missed the personal connections to people. Help them recalibrate how they talk and engage.”
Leaders should also try to add 15 seconds to every conversation in order to better connect, says Deutser. “When they do go back, everybody will have jitters,” he says. “Even the leader will have jitters. It’s okay to admit it; it’s not a sign of weakness. It’s okay to admit that you’re doing the best you can.”
Re-grounding is a big part of reentry, says Deutser. “What you do in the first few days back will go a long way in dictating employees’ physical and psychological safety.”