Up Next: Uncharted Territory for Leaders


photo_map_compassAfter weeks of Coronavirus coverage and updates, we’re all feeling a bit of COVID conversation fatigue. We’re anxious for life to return to normal as soon as safely possible. We long for the day when we can share a meal with our friends and family. We are hopeful that when businesses are allowed to re-open, we’ll feel this sudden bounce back to normal life.

Unfortunately, it will likely get worse before it gets better.

Organizations responded to stay-at-home orders quickly out of necessity and everyone adapted over time. Getting back to work will come with a new set of challenges that must be driven by policy and strong people-centered leadership. For example, when offices are allowed to re-open, they won’t look the same as they did in January. In addition to daily temperature checks, it’s likely that break/lunch rooms may be closed and shared workspaces will be scrutinized. Large in-person meetings will likely be frowned upon unless absolutely critical. And even when team members are in the same office, they may choose to still interact mostly online to minimize in-person interaction for fear of interacting with someone who is asymptomatic. And not everyone will return to the office, either. With the school year cancelled, we can also expect most summer camps will cancel as well, so childcare will still be an issue for working parents.

What happens next will be complicated, uncharted territory.

Prepare for some workers to request ongoing remote working arrangements. If those requests are granted, prepare for thoughts/concerns from the team members who are required to come into the office. During the universal stay-at-home orders, most people have been understanding of the meeting disruptions from pets and children, but they may be less tolerant when half of the team is working from the office.

Assume that your workforce is shouldering more mental health challenges than normal. These past few weeks have been fear-filled and emotionally draining. They may both be eager to work and also terrified about the future. A kinder, gentler approach is absolutely critical in our slow adjustment towards normal. Remember—this is still a time of extreme volatility and uncertainty. Treat your people with extra care.

Each person has a different view of how strongly we should adhere to self-isolation. While some people haven’t left their homes in weeks and wipe down each item from their grocery deliveries, others are shopping at major retailers and gathering with friends. Expect conflict among team members at the extremes of that continuum. Expect each person coughing to raise anxiety within the team. Returning to work will not mean people are less anxious/concerned about contracting the virus, and managers will be expected to mediate these difficult conversations.

Take the time now to talk through what will happen next. Think through policies, but more importantly think empathetically about the best way to handle these sensitive situations. This is the time when people-centered leaders will truly shine, and others will have to learn quickly from their mistakes.