The Great Comeback: What Leaders Can Do to Return to Work and Thrive

When do we come back? How do we come back? Who do we bring back? What will our hybrid model look like? How do we return to work and thrive? These questions are important ones for senior leaders to answer, but they’re only a fraction of what we’re calling The Great Comeback story.

As leaders go about the business of creating a new working model (again), wishing and hoping won’t get anyone to ‘better.’ If making a great comeback is the goal, leaders need to focus their efforts on thriving. Understanding that Kindness in the workplace is essential, is the first step. From there, they need to shift their mindset and view work differently than they did B.C. and acknowledge that work is a human thing. Focusing on whether people work physically, remotely or hybridly is secondary to how they work. The how is what shapes our human experience when we’re working.

Our workplace experience across the 40 (or more) hours we devote every week directly impacts the quality or thriveability of our overall lives. Our friendships, relationships and marriages are impacted. Our energy levels, quality of sleep and moods are on the list. Our experience across those working hours affects our parenting, our sex lives, physical health, mind health, habits, perspective, our happiness, sense of fulfilment, purpose, state of being and so much more.

So, here we are. Another point of inflection where the outcomes we create will be dictated by the choices we make. If we want to thrive at work, we have to get super clear about what we want and need across those 40 hours of the week. Leaders need to think about this on a self and collective level.

As a leader, you open your office doors and hope for the best. Or, you can pause and lead with clarity. By mindfully creating a return plan that puts human experience and culture at the very centre of your workplace strategy, you and the people you lead are far more likely to return to work and thrive.

Of course the dynamics are complicated. We’re experiencing this point in time, for the very first time. There’s no one right way to move from where we’ve been to where we’re going. But, there are countless ways to really flub things up. By focusing on these five areas, you’ll pave a smoother return path that leaves everyone in your organization better.

 

1. Understand your motivation.

Before you surrender to sliding right back into BAU, huddle with your leadership team. Grab your pens, paper, virtual whiteboards and get some food delivered. Slow down, focus and get really clear on the answers to these (3) questions:

  • Why are we bringing people back into the office?
  • What’s been missing since we went remote?
  • What do we hope to gain? What (and who) could we lose that we’ve benefitted from over the last two years?

You may realise the culprit is the empty office with that massive commercial lease you’ve been footing the bill for since 2020. Maybe you’ll realise your team is suffering from an identity crisis- that they feel more like leaders when they’re able to see the people they lead IRL. You could discover your motivation is driven by familiarity and comfort- a ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ mindset. Or maybe, you’ll realise how much you’ve missed the tangibleness of the culture and energy people shared when they were together. The vibe that made your company really special is drawing you back.

Wherever you land, getting super clear on your ‘why’ as a leadership team will give you the insight you’ll surely need to communicate your come back reasoning with your employees. There’s also a chance you and your team will realise there’s no good reason, which may lead you to scrub that whiteboard and rethink your whole plan.

 

2. Don’t assume everyone will come back willingly.

My grandmother used to say, “When we assume, it makes an ass out of u and me.” No matter where or how we work, organisations are collections of human beings and none of us are the same. If you’re planning to bring people back into your office, acknowledging the wide range of emotions and reactions that will surface is essential.

Some people have benefitted from their experience over the last two years. They’ve unwound, de-stressed, picked up hobbies, reconnected with their families, gotten healthier, gained clarity, grown, traveled to other places- because we could work, wherever. They generally become better versions of the people they were. They’ve thrived and as a result so has their work.

Some people have juggled, struggled, felt disoriented, lonely and worked to the point of burnout. Others have suffered immense loss. No matter where we fall, it’s safe to say that every one of us has been affected somehow. We’re different people than we were before.

Now for the comeback. A subset of people will be ecstatic to get out of their leisurewear, gather their pretty plants, mugs, cool sound machines and nest back into the workspaces they’ve desperately missed. Maybe they’ve been living alone and relish the idea of shoving into an elevator with other warm bodies. Maybe they’ve had a full house and they need to get away. They could be wild extroverts who thrive on other people’s energy. Or maybe, they really need the physical office- a more clear division between work and home.

Some people will be fearful, freaked out and anything but ready to spend time in a room with folks they haven’t shared physical space with in years or in some cases- ever. There will be the introverts who experienced full on nirvana the second they were sent home to work indefinitely, alone. For these folks, their work life has never served them better. Returning to an office will be a source of anxiety and stress and that will compromise their experience and directly impact the outputs of their work. They may decide to leave you to work for a company where they have the flexibility to decide where they work.

There will be people torn between the social benefits of returning to the office with the deep personal benefits they’ve gained while working from home. Some, for the very first time in their careers. Other people will experience a sense of profound loss, maybe even grief as they drop their kids off at school or leave the pets alone for hours, who have been by their side- their lifelines.

Some people will face very real financial burdens that go along with the logistics of coming back to the office: gas money, train money, dry cleaning the clothes they haven’t worn in years, daycare, car maintenance, dog walkers. Others will resent the time they’ll lose by starting their workdays earlier and ending much later because they’ll be commuting- again.

Understanding that we are all different and acknowledging the wide range of emotions, reactions and individual needs that we have will help leadership teams craft a mindful comeback plan that serves their people and their business.

 

3. Aim to create a thriving workplace culture.

Unless your employee engagement and organisational health scores were off the chart positive pre- COVID, bail on the idea of restoring. Aim to create a thriving workplace culture. This is The Great Comeback, after all!

Whatever your comeback plan looks like for your organization, this is an historical and unprecedented opportunity to redefine your business and thrive by getting more human and more intentional in thought, word and action.

Go back to your pens, paper and virtual whiteboard. Think about your culture. Reflect on your core values. Read the words you chose in your most recent corporate memos. Consider your policies, processes and decisions. Reconnect with why your business exists. Focus on these questions as a team:

  • Where did our humanity come through in our business, pre-COVID?
  • What are we most proud of today, as we think about our company, our people and what we’ve achieved together since 2020?
  • What do we need to let go of or change so our people can thrive?

 

4. Align to your purpose.

We all need a sense of purpose to thrive. It’s essential as we consider our overall health and happiness. Our 2021 research showed people, especially Gen Zers, will leave their jobs for less money in exchange for more purpose.

There’s a wide gap that exists between leaders and employees when it comes to understanding organisational purpose. Closing that gap is another opportunity for leaders to increase connection, engagement and thriveability. Ask yourselves:

  • What’s been most challenging about achieving our organisational purpose since wfh began?
  • What turned out to be easier than we thought and how have our people been central to our success?
  • How have we, as leaders, connected our people to the purpose of our work and why they’re so important?

 

5. Abandon your trash habits.

When it comes to challenges, two prominent themes surfaced in our workplace research- excessive workloads and toxic management practices. The bad news is both have been significant contributors to workplace burnout and The Great Resignation. The good news is they can be changed through choices and habits. It’s simply a matter of awareness, commitment and choice.

Doing an inventory here is important for one simple reason. If the work habits your organization had pre- COVID were trash, they’ve likely gotten far worse. Transitioning back to the office is a chance to wipe the slate clean- to create better in every way- to thrive. Reflect on your leadership practices. They flow through the organization and affect overall culture and experience.

How often did you work on weekends, send emails after hours or jam your calendar so full that your bladder nearly burst? How frequently did you launch a meeting without an agenda or clearly communicated goal or desired outcome? How often did you and your team use words like resources, FTEs, headcount or worse instead of people when talking about your people? How often did you reward mediocrity or excuse abusive behaviour in pursuit of profitability?

These trash habits, and others like them, cause disengagement, attrition and poor performance. Be brave. Take an honest inventory. Then, take a deep breath, forgive yourself and read on.

Every positive choice can create a positive habit, when practiced consistently. If you want to come back and thrive, commit to Kind choices that leave everyone in your organization better. Kindness is an essential business competency for thriving organisations, because work is a human thing and our research shows that workplace Kindness matters to people.

85% of the people we surveyed globally want workplaces that are Kind. Kindness is a human need that’s at the core of thriveability. Forget the fluffy, flowery, token stuff and focus on developing habits that leave everyone and everything better.

Start small and with intention. You don’t need expensive frameworks or re-orgs. You simply need to look at your inventory, get mindful and choose better. Here are three final questions for you and your leadership team.

  • Is Kindness part of our value system?
  • Where and how does it exist in our workplace?
  • Do our decisions leave our people better?

Focusing on these five areas won’t give you all the answers you need. But, they will set the foundation for your Great Comeback- nurturing the human side of your business so everyone can thrive, no matter what your new work model looks like

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