I think it’s fair to say that many of us feel like we’ve been operating some kind of half-life. As one of my clients put it recently, “I’ve been existing, not living and definitely not thriving!”
For most of us, work can help give us as sense of identity and belonging. In their book, Awakening Compassion at Work, Monica Worline and Jane Dutton say, "Workplaces offer the opportunity to be in community with others and experience being part of an inter-connected whole".
No wonder so many of us have felt disconnected. Not quite whole. And no wonder lots of people are beginning to report feelings of burnout, something that has become a consistent theme in many of my recent coaching sessions with clients. As the psychologist, Adam Grant, says in his book, Give and Take, "…there is now a consistent and strong body of evidence that a lack of social support is linked to burnout".
Now, as many companies start to reopen their workplaces, employees at all levels are likely to feel a mix of emotions.
For some, there will be relief at getting some semblance of routine and normality. For others, there’ll be excitement at seeing people other than family members or, if they live alone, just excitement at having contact (not physical, of course) with other people. And for others, there may be varying degrees of anxiety at being in fairly close proximity to other people while the virus still exists.
What strategies might help people ease back into the workplace after being away for so long?
As an evidence-based practitioner, I’m a big believer in asking the people affected what they think. Therefore, one of the most practical tips I’ve given clients is for them to ask their team members for feedback on lessons learned during the pandemic.
The four questions I suggest managers ask are:
Some managers have done this as a virtual team discussion, while others have done this via a simple survey. All who have asked their teams these questions have been impressed by how helpful the responses have been in helping to craft a meaningful, relevant and practical action plan.
What other strategies might help people ease back into the workplace?
Many of the leaders I work with have been thinking about how to re-bond their teams, who have been physically apart for so long. Research from the University of British Columbia examined more than 16,800 studies to find out what kind of approaches had the best impact on improving teamwork and team performance. Among the many findings, the researchers found that interventions were more effective when the focus was on more than one dimension of teamwork. For example, if a team was exploring how they communicated with each other, a facilitator could include activities around goal-setting, giving feedback, developing learning strategies etc.
Those interventions which included experiential, more active ways of learning, were found to have a more positive impact on teamwork than passive classroom-style sessions. In other words, any re-bonding activity needs to be practical and applicable easily and quickly.
Here are some things to think about:
Finally, the most practical think managers and leaders can do is to create spaces for conversation. There’s a psychological concept called Affect Labelling, where if we can name the negative emotion we're experiencing and describe it succinctly what's causing that feeling, we can reduce its hold on us. As you and your employees are likely to experience a rollercoaster of emotions in the early weeks of returning to the workplace, creating safe spaces to talk about how each person is feeling not only gives you important information to work with, but it might just reduce the negative impact of some of the emotions.
Hayley Lewis is a chartered occupational psychologist and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, specialising in leadership, management and team development. You can follow her on LinkedIn, where she shares daily tips and tools for managers and leaders.