Are you back to normal at work now? Of course you’re not.

There is no normal right now, in a world where we’re all wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart and washing our hands religiously in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Instead of trying to get back to normal, we should all be focusing on getting back to stable. Pushing too hard to make things just like they were pre-COVID will only lead to frustration, miscommunication and disengagement.

We’re put together a few areas where you’ll want to plan ahead and strategize to make sure you’re meeting the needs of those who matter to your business as you work to get back to stable.  

1. Figure Out What You Need

Take an honest look at your own needs before you get started. If you just dive back into work without a plan, you’re likely to suffer burnout or to be impatient with others when they express their needs – neither of which will position you as a leader people love to follow and support.

Ask yourself some of the following questions to plan for your return to work:

  • Will you be able to continue working from home or do you and your team need to be back in the office?
  • Will you need to have some hard conversations with team members about whether they can return to work? How will you emotionally prepare yourself for those conversations?
  • Will you need to make childcare arrangements to ensure you can come back to work when your team does? Will that mean finding camps or other programs that are open, or will it require ongoing remote work/schedule flexibility? 

Speaking of employees coming back to work, how will you decide who is able to come back? Analyzing the skill sets of your team members and planning for their return can be difficult, and many managers may feel guilt over picking and choosing who is able to return to work, especially if they’ve placed team members on furloughs during their time away from the physical office.

These conversations are going to be draining and emotionally charged, so make sure you’re taking care of yourself physically and mentally, both in preparation and in the aftermath. Exercising, meditating, talking with a therapist or other professional, and showing self-compassion – you need all these healthy practices in your life as you ensure you’re stable and prepared for the future.

2. Figure Out What Your Business Needs.

Are there resources you need to tap into to get your business back on track? Look at the resources that are available to you, from funding to protective equipment to other support, and determine whether you’ll require any of them to get people working again.

If you’re a business owner or top-level executive, worrying about financial issues can really impact your ability to get back to a stable place. And, your employees can read the writing on the wall. If they’re accustomed to handling 8-10 client requests for the day, they’ll definitely notice when they see that volume drop to 2 or 3.

Determining how much information to share with your team can take leadership and emotional intelligence. The best thing you can do is respect their intelligence and avoid pretending there’s nothing wrong.

Instead, let them know you’re working to make your organization as stable and secure as possible.

You don’t have to share everything, but making people aware of how they might be impacted by changes in your business practices or in the economy can give them an added sense of relief and trust. And, when they know you’re being transparent and giving them your trust, they will find it easier to remain dedicated and engaged.

As a business, you’ll have practical things to consider as well. Make sure you’re factoring these questions into your new routines: 

  • What cleaning and disinfecting policies are required to be able to bring people back to your place of business?
  • What policies do you need to put in place regarding vendors who come onsite?
  • Will your business require masks, temperature taking or other cautionary processes? How will you communicate these things to your team members, and how will you expect them to communicate to vendors, partners and clients?

3. Figure Out What Your Clients Need.

During a time of change, everyone is navigating uncharted waters and trying to find their way to stability. Your clients are no exception.

They’re likely feeling the same fears you are, and they’re just as stressed over the economic uncertainty.

Consider using your position of leadership as a force for good, and position yourself as a guide through this situation.

  • Talk with your clients about what they need and the questions they’re facing.
    • How are they managing their resources and making sure their business makes it through these tough times?
    • What questions do they have related to your business?
  • Figure out the answers to those questions and use them as coaching points with your own teams. You want to ensure that the message you’re giving to everyone is consistent and emotionally intelligent – actively listening as you prepare to meet clients needs will allow you to meet their needs more thoroughly than if you try to hazard guesses at what’s most impacting them.

Put yourself in their shoes. If you were the client, would your product be a must-have or a nice-to-have? If you listen to their needs, respond with emotional intelligence, and take active steps to support and address their needs, you’re much more likely to position yourself as a necessity for their business, even in a difficult economic climate.

4. Figure Out What Your Team Needs.

Getting back to stable means different things for different organizations. For some, it’s getting everyone back in the office and trying to do business the same way it’s been done for the past 100 years.

For many others, work is going to change dramatically – out of necessity.

You, as a leader for your team and organization, have to figure out where your team falls on this spectrum.

The best way to do this is to communicate, communicate, communicate.

Change and communication have to be tied closely together – you can’t let one get out in front of the other, or your employee relationships and morale will greatly suffer. When you’re planning on getting stability back with your team, communicate, share information and actively listen much more frequently than you would in a traditional and status quo timeframe. 

Communicate that not everyone has the same needs.

Different team members will have different needs in the coming weeks. To reach stability, you have to be able to address each of their needs.

  • Some team members will be eager to get back to the office because they thrive on routine and predictability. If you’re able to get them back into the office and it fits with your return plan, celebrate it with them. If they’re not part of your first wave of returning employees, acknowledge and empathize with their frustration.
  • Some team members may see this as a time for growth and will still be eager to advance. Give them additional responsibilities and let them show their own blossoming leadership skills. Make sure to allot time for additional communication as they work through their new responsibilities.
  • Some team members will struggle because of additional responsibilities at home, lack of childcare or health concerns. The fact that these employees are facing change in their professional and personal lives will create a tremendous amount of additional stress. Make sure you’re giving them room to communicate their needs with you and that you’re considering how policies will impact their ability to contribute to your business.

Give permission for people to feel.

When you have conversations with your employees, be prepared for emotion. Some people will feel ecstatic to be back to work. Some will feel guilty because they have opportunities that many others are missing out on. Some will feel overwhelmed by the changes in the workplace.

In times like this, emotions can come out where you least expect them.

You may be talking with an employee who becomes irrationally frustrated over something miniscule like a poor connection on a conference call.

You may call an employee to let them know they can’t come back to work for another month and be met with a deluge of tears.

You may connect with another employee to give them the good news about returning and be met with the same tears (only 14% of employees feel that their workplace is taking enough precautions to allow them to return to work safely).

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to prepare for these different emotional expressions that connect with the changes people are experiencing. What can you do to be ready when an employee bursts into tears or starts venting frustration?

Acknowledge their feelings are real and valid.

When change happens, people go through a cycle of emotions. The Kübler-Ross change curve can be a helpful resource when considering how people are feeling and addressing their emotions.

This model, originally designed to address the stages of grief, is applicable to any situation where change occurs. Being aware of the feelings employees may express (as well as the ones you’re experiencing) can help you communicate and connect with greater awareness.

Kubler Ross Change Curve

Prepare yourself by talking with a professional. 

When an employee lashes out in frustration or expresses extreme sadness, it can be easy to take those feelings personally. Many leaders either find themselves responding in anger or taking on their employees’ feelings of sadness. 

Working with a coach or a therapist can help you prepare for these conversations, or to process information after them. When you’re prepared, you’ll be more likely to handle objections or concerns with emotional intelligence, leading to better relationships and more engaged, loyal teams. 

Have a set of talking points to support your conversations. 

You don’t need a script to communicate with your employees, as that can sound robotic and uncaring. You do need to be able to see the situation from their perspective and to be able to address their questions, frustrations, and fears. 

Thinking through questions they may ask can help you be more prepared for conversations and can leave them feeling confident and engaged after discussing new procedures or reintegration plans. 

Everyone is expecting change during this time. The best way to address these adjustments is by being clear, direct and straightforward. 

In each conversation, whether with an employee, a team member, or a client, acknowledge the value these people bring to your team and organization. In this way, you’ll continue to strengthen your relationships and the culture of your organization.