A Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

By Melanie A. Katzman, Ph.D.

As a business coach and clinical psychologist, my clients have spent the past year Zooming with me from their living rooms, home offices, even their closets, seeking help with everything from pivoting business strategies, to tackling calls for social justice, or to simply get through the day. After a year of anxiously wondering when (and sometimes, whether) businesses will re-open, the acceleration of the vaccine rollout means that — suddenly — the moment is now!

Many companies are asking “How soon can we return to onsite working?” This question tends to lead primarily to practical solutions focused on medical safety. In my experience, that’s only a starting point. A life-threatening illness which challenged the status quo for when and where we work can now be the stimulus for life-affirming protocols at work.

As organizations hit the restart button, leaders can prepare by taking the opportunity to ask, “Who do we want to be as a company?” It’s an opportunity to embrace flexible ways of working to promote practices that underpin success. It’s also a chance to respond to, and align with, questions being asked by employees at every level. In my practice, highly productive and committed employees, who for the past year have experienced the positive benefits of less business travel, more home cooked meals, and greater time with family, are asking themselves “How do I want to live my life?”

As companies prepare for partial or full return to the office, my clients who are not senior decision makers have expressed frustration with their employers’ policies regarding in-office social proximity, vaccination requirements, and workplace hygiene. Some are worried that they will be forced to work too closely with colleagues. Others wonder why, if they are fully vaccinated, they’re being told to come to the office only to attend meetings on Zoom from their desks rather than getting together as a group in the conference room.

Clients who are leading companies are frustrated that no matter how thoughtful and well-informed their choices are, employees are challenging policies. In some cases, the disconnect appears to be between the return to office procedures employers are communicating, which tend to be objectively stated and rooted in medical precautions, versus the conversations team members really want to have about holding onto physically and mentally healthy routines established during lock down.

COVID has caused terrible pain, loss, and hardship. Yet for many, the lockdown prompted novel solutions and accompanying freedoms. Less time spent driving! Sweatpants!! In an effort to survive, many found ways to thrive. One of my clients said:

I just hit my WFH stride and it’s catastrophically ending!

This isn’t really about a fear of the virus. Apprehension about returning to full-time, in-office work, is being expressed by high achieving, fully committed employees who resist making what they view as unnecessary pre-pandemic sacrifices. They cite greater productivity with reduced commuting, healthy weight loss given the reduction in restaurant meals, improved fitness with time to have a quick work out, and a delight in being able to have breakfast with loved ones.

My clients are asking that their employees trust them to make wise choices; to be part of the planning. If working from home during a pandemic achieved positive results, imagine what’s possible if flexible schedules remain an option as the world opens.

Of course, not every job can be completed from a coffee shop or home dining table, and many workers are ready to re-energize in the company of their colleagues. Back at the office, there’s an opportunity to review the daily rhythms of work. Rather than imposing top-down companywide policies, it’s a chance for teams to have creative conversations. What sorts of breaks, gatherings, shared meals, or new rituals will restore meaning and connection? What kinds of accommodations are needed for employees whose families have not resumed a normal routine? What needs to be decided in a definitive way now, and what decisions can be deferred without negatively impacting effectiveness?

Managers I consult with have reported informative sessions where team members discuss which activities are better in person. For example, gathering together surrounded by whiteboards, drawing possible solutions all over the walls, drives innovation. Once the plan is set, colleagues can work remotely independently or in small groups.

As companies identify groups that must be in the office full-time, those who will have modified schedules going forward, and others that will continue working from home, it is important to explain the rationale and be open to phasing in the return. There may be instances where residency has tax implications for both the company and its employees, and impacts compensation. Explain why it’s not so simple to continue living in a state you were not hired to work from. It’s important that rules be fair and transparent. Too often I hear about the corner office/cubicle divide. Believe me, if you are a manager assuming you can negotiate your personal workarounds, you are not invisible.

This is a moment when trust can easily be broken, and quality talent alienated. It doesn’t have to be that way. Passionate, loyal professionals, in the safety of our sessions, are asking, “What are we solving for?” It’s a conversation to have both at home and on the job. Covid demanded we alter established routines. It has also given us the opportunity to create a new, more sustainable normal. Let’s not waste this crisis.

  • Offer as much information as you can (even if it’s incomplete) on return-to-work health protocols. Recognize that people welcome information during periods of unpredictability but have a hard time retaining it when they are anxious. It’s okay to repeat yourself and use multiple means of communicating — town halls, slack messages, emails, etc.
  • Obtain data. If you haven’t already, this is a good time to survey employees’ needs as many may have rode out the pandemic in other cities and will have to find new apartments, organize child or elder care, or figure out new educational arrangements for their children.
  • Share the rationale for the return-to-office plan. Help employees see why their physical presence will make a material difference in the organization’s success. Be as specific as you can by person and/or function.
  • Consider flexible return-to-office dates that recognize the diversity of needs. Remember that people in positions of power may feel less bound to follow the exact rules, while more junior employees will struggle to comply.
  • Listen — without making commitments — to team members’ anxieties. Don’t just ask a perfunctory “How are you?” Allow time to hear the answer.
  • Be proactive. Dream together! Ask what changes your employees would like to see in terms of onsite work, flexible schedules, etc. Make no promises but set a date for when you will share findings and review possible policy changes.
  • Keep asking open questions. Don’t assume acclimation to the office will be linear. Expect an ebb and flow of often conflicting emotions.
  • Be vulnerable. Deeper connection and understanding results when each of us risks sharing the fears and frustrations experienced during trying times.

Watch for my next Medium post: “After Zoom box intimacy, 12 ways to relate to colleagues IRL.”

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www.melaniekatzman.com & www.katzmanconsulting.com

Clinical psychologist, business consultant & coach to the world’s top public & private companies. The WSJ #1 best-selling author of, “Connect First.”