Will this lockdown ever end? For those of us in Melbourne it seems like it never will – but of course it will, of that I am certain. What happens post pandemic is anyone’s guess.
Already we are seeing communities overseas and interstate return to a cautious normal. But even as I write this New Zealand’s Prime Minister is reinstating precautions as they detect new cases after 102 days of being Covid free, so it’s not over yet.
So, what can you expect from staff as they return to work out of lockdown? Well that depends on a number of factors:
- How were they impacted by the virus?
- How were they affected by the lockdown?
- Their stress and resilience levels.
- How they were feeling about their work and personal life prior to the pandemic?
- Their personality type will play a significant role as well.
For those working from home, there is the joy of not having to commute to work, but this is countered by the loss of the ‘joy of arriving home’, now that work is home. Those returning to the workplace fall into three main categories:
Duties as usual from home:
Were they simply doing what they normally do, but from the comfort of home? There are possibly two camps here:
- Some may be reluctant to return to work and some may elect to continue working from home. Of this group, those that choose to come back to work may be anxious and depressed at losing their autonomy and the peace and quiet of working from home. They will need time to settle back in and may need to be reassured of the benefits of working in a team as they may have felt more productive at home.
- Others will be overjoyed to return to work, but will also need time to settle in. So many stories to tell and questions to ask. They may find it hard to focus and productivity may decrease for a while. But it will return eventually. Create an opportunity for them to share and vent before expecting them to focus on their output.
Were their job roles significantly changed as a result of the pandemic? Most likely the change was a lessening of their responsibilities, leading to a loss of status. Over time this leads to a loss of confidence, which will affect their ability to do the work they were doing so well prior to the pandemic. They may be slower to achieve what they were achieving previously and more tentative in their decision making. The time away from their regular duties has been significant, and it is amazing how fleeting confidence and competence can be sometimes. The good news is that by showing patience and confidence in them you will be able to help them return to form quickly.
Resist the urge to micromanage them. Let them solve the issues themselves and re-establish their prior confidence and competence. It may take some time, but your patience and encouragement will help speed up the recovery.
Did their role cease to exist during the pandemic? For some they have been surviving on the generosity of their employer and the government without having to work at all, or perhaps with greatly reduced hours. At first the idea of being paid to watch Netflix and do jigsaws seemed ideal, but humans need purpose and with the lack of it, depression and anxiety are common. With the depression and anxiety comes loss of confidence and competence. It will be like they are ‘new recruits’ for a while. As a leader you will need to be patient and encouraging.
For many, the hours they work have been greatly reduced. Apart from the economic implications, this led to addition free time at home, which can be both good and bad. Not only can it lead to anxiety and depression, the change in routine can be difficult to adjust to and can make it difficult to focus on the work. Working intermittently is a bit like having to use ‘muscles’ that have been inactive for a while – tiring and painful. So, when they return, be aware that they may find the return to their normal hours much more tiring and difficult than you might expect.
On top of this, how were they personally impacted by the virus? Did they contract it? Did someone they know and love contract it? Did they lose a loved one to it? What major life events did they miss out on? Perhaps they were in denial of its existence. We were all impacted, but we were all impacted differently.
Rebooting the team:
Regardless of what has happened, “getting the band back together” is going to require a reboot. A facilitated session to get individuals working as a team again will be important on many levels, organisationally and personally.
Here is a possible guideline for such a session:
Step One: Story Telling
What we have all been through needs to be acknowledged and accepted. Create a space where an individual can process what they have been through, safely and without judgement. We all need to be reminded that even though we were all in isolation, our experience was unique to us. EVERYONE has been impacted in significant ways.
There has been plenty of media around the mental health impacts of the virus and the isolation, with its associated fears and anxieties. Don’t minimise what another was feeling as you don’t know the emotional load they were carrying coming into the pandemic. We are all impacted differently. If your organisation has an Employee Assistance Program, now would be a great time to market it.
As a leader, make sure your actions are creating a positive environment. Your patience and encouragement will be integral to your team’s positive mental health. Be tolerant of statements and beliefs that conflict with your views. Don’t humiliate or belittle anyone or their experiences.
Vocalising your genuine appreciation for them is also vital. It stimulates all the positive brain chemicals and makes change and growth possible.
Help people with their thinking patterns. In times of stress and anxiety people have a tendency to catastrophise, leading to more anxiety and stress. You can help with this by encouraging them to challenge the way they are thinking about the situation. Again, patience and understanding must be employed, but if you can change their thinking about the situation, you will have a big impact on their behaviours. This is basic Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Looking after your own mental health is also imperative. You’ve been through the same pandemic and isolation as they have, and practicing good mental health is also role modelling it to your team.
Step Two: Team Building
Now it’s time to extol the virtues of working in a team again. There are countless team building activities you could use with your team, but make sure they suit your purposes and fit with the culture of your team. I like using team building tools (such as MBTI, HBDI, DiSC, Belbin or TMS), but a simple activity shared together may be all that is required. Start with determining the pros and cons of teamwork and work your way up from there. Don’t diminish the work accomplished in isolation at home, but build on the importance of community and collaboration. How can we integrate the benefits of working autonomously while working in a team environment?
Step Three: Repurposing
After a period of settling in, it will be useful to re-establish the purpose and mission of your organisation and team.
Now might be a great time to fine tune your team’s purpose in light of any change in priorities bought about by the pandemic.
Understanding our purpose stimulates the brain’s reward chemicals (Serotonin) and lessens the anxiety ones (Cortisol).
Step Four: The Future
Ask the team to process the impact the pandemic has had on work practices.
- What new practices would you like to see continue in our workplace?
- What new practices would you NOT like to take forward?
- Are there any pre-pandemic processes that could be enhanced to better suit the organisation going forward?
- What should we do immediately?
- What should we do in six months time?
- What seems unrealistic?
- What would be required to make it realistic?
Any changes suggested by the team will be owned by the team and therefore it will be simpler to ask the team to implement them.
The more energy and time you dedicate to this ‘reboot’ the greater (and quicker) the rewards. Working in a team is a complex relationship that requires effort and energy. After Covid, we are basically starting from scratch, regardless of how many zoom meetings you have had with your team (or perhaps as a result of them!).