COVID-19 is still a pressing reality in many parts of the world, and it may continue to be for quite some time. But in the U.S., with case numbers reduced, most companies are drawing up plans for a return to some form of in-person setting for employees.
In March 2020, we flipped a switch. The abrupt pivot to fully remote operations threw teams into strange routines, unfamiliar workflows, and a dependence on technology to communicate and execute their roles. But when teams return to in-person work, as restrictions loosen and cities roll out reopening plans, leaders should follow learnings from that initial pandemic moment. Whether they go to a hybrid model or are more frequently in the office, the change will be jarring, and leaders must instill a different mindset to ease the transition.
Everyone–at every level and in every industry–will feel this. Kids will return to school in the fall, workers will be adding a commute back into their schedules, and any other required business travel that resumes will bring additional coordination and planning into the work-life routine. That last point in particular will be a positive adjustment for me personally. During the weeks when I’m traveling, I know I will have extra time for strategic planning throughout each day.
As leaders, we have a responsibility to set an example of how to navigate, respond to, and address this challenge for our teams. Many employees haven’t seen each other for more than a year. Some have never met. We must enable strong morale, collaboration and camaraderie, and productivity–all while our teams adjust to another radical shift.
As we approach work-life after COVID, here are three ways leaders can effectively and smoothly ease their teams through this change:
Continue to lean on collaborative technology
Technology was essential to getting businesses through the pandemic–and people impressively adapted to virtual collaboration. In this setup, the amount of people who could join a meeting was limitless–and the interfacing and discussion could spread across a wide range of departments and locations. When teams return to in-office work, where less than 10 people may be able to fit in a single conference room, collaboration could be held back. To progress what’s been built over the past year, leaders should continue to lean on these collaborative technologies and make them a core piece of their team routines. In-person meetings are essential and highly valuable, but don’t erase the benefits that virtual collaboration can still provide–such as greater inclusion, discussion, and awareness.
Set realistic expectations for productivity
Companies have appreciated significant productivity gains during the pandemic. With employees at home and commute and travel times erased, those extra minutes and hours were spent getting more work done. But with a return to the office, these productivity gains aren’t sustainable. Leaders should recognize the reality that in-person work will add new time commitments, which will take away from time their employees would have previously been spending on their tasks and projects. When setting expectations, don’t anticipate teams to surpass their remote work productivity. Instead, allow them to adjust to this new (albeit, former) way of working, and once acclimated, reevaluate how to properly measure success within the in-person or hybrid working model.
Promote a culture of social balance
Over the past year, employees have enjoyed the perks of more personal time, such as working out in the morning and spending more time with their kids. But with new in-person commitments, such as work travel, dinners, and happy hours, we will need to rebalance our time to be available for social engagements as well. Leaders must help their employees to reemerge into these social occasions while also promoting a culture of balance. Teams will expect to have more flexibility and opportunities to work from home, and leaders should accommodate–especially when it can counterbalance the instances where the standard workday stretches into off-hour obligations.
Re-emerging from the pandemic won’t be easy, but leaders must be the ones to chart the path forward. The pace of in-person work and all that comes along with it will be an enormous adjustment. But by continuing to leverage technology, modifying KPIs and goals, and empowering employees to have more personal balance in their off-hours, the transition back to in-office or hybrid work will be much more manageable and enjoyable.
Eileen Sweeney is the executive vice president of manufacturing, automotive, and life sciences for Capgemini Americas.