As employees begin to head back to the office, workplaces can help ensure a thoughtful transition

Originally published in the Globe & Mail July 5th, 2021

As cities around the globe progress through reopening phases, many workers are preparing to transition back to the office after many months of remote work. While some companies are already reopening their offices at varying capacities, many are offering their employees options for how often and how long they might be required to be at the workplace.

In fact, many companies are contemplating a hybrid model (a combination of in-office and work-from-home time) or fully remote model indefinitely, as part of their long-term talent strategy. As leaders and colleagues, it is important that we acknowledge the wide range of emotions that people may experience through this transitional time – from elation to relief to anxiety. These emotions will be triggered for different colleagues at different times and for different reasons. Some may feel uncomfortable getting into an elevator in proximity with others. Some may be eager to socialize and interact with others. Others might be anxious about fitting into their old work clothes, or could be keen to get some space from the roommates they’ve been sharing close quarters with for over a year. Many might experience a combination of all of the above.

The more we can tap into our emotional intelligence – which is the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions and to manage interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically – the more adept we can be at supporting our colleagues through their own emotional journeys. A few practices to consider:

  1. Name our emotions: If we feel like we are being forced to do something against our will, emotions can quickly take over, impacting our engagement, productivity and overall well-being. Being honest with ourselves about (or even writing down) the emotions we are experiencing, and their real or perceived cause, can help identify what is holding us back and empower us to make decisions more deliberately, responding with our six mental faculties (reason, will, intuition, imagination, perception and memory) instead of reacting with emotion.
  2. Tame our emotions: Getting practical and organized keeps us focused on small steps that are within our control and can help keep our emotions from getting the best of us.

As leaders:

  1. Continue employee listening: A strategy to gather employee sentiment at regular intervals, and quickly take action based on that feedback, will be key to maintaining colleagues’ well-being and engagement, and minimizing business disruption through this transitional period and beyond.
  2. Show vulnerability: As an example, in an e-mail sent to all employees, one of the executives I work with shared some of the things that tripped her up on her first day back in the office (dusty shoulders on suit jackets, misplaced jewellery, “hard pants” and social anxiety). She equated the apprehension to the feeling you get before a high school reunion. Communicating in this honest, relatable way undoubtedly alleviated some of the pressure felt by colleagues contemplating their own re-entry.
  3. Help set priorities: Distractions abound, colleagues will be looking to leaders to help set priorities, including expectations regarding in-office versus remote work. At the onset, managers may need to be more prescriptive while new habits and norms are still forming.

As we have seen through the pandemic, tapping into leadership capabilities such as empathy, vulnerability, growth mindset and emotional intelligence will continue to be critical during this transitional period – and ongoing uncertain times. Continuing to develop and practice these principles under varying conditions will ingrain stronger human leadership in our organizations, better supporting colleagues to thrive.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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