A year ago, middle managers were wrestling with how to guide people through an increasingly dark future. COVID-19 was new, the impact of work-life was unknown, and the potential impact on all aspects of daily life could not be believed. Working and being productive when store shelves were empty, and paper goods were rationed seemed unfathomable.
Just as people were adapting to isolation, the social justice movement and Black Lives Matter protests, an insurrection at the Capitol, and plots to kidnap elected officials because of public safety declarations came spilling across our lives and screens. Many of those same strategies still apply. However, it turns out that guiding people through an increasingly bright future is also difficult. Here are a few things to remember about leading during these possibly positive times.
Rebuild social capital and capacity.
Social ties have been weakened and distorted in the past year. Political differences, differences in adherence to public health guidelines, lack of contact, and superficial contact have stretched and strained relationships. In addition, a great deal of effort has been directed inward towards maintaining one’s own mental health , sometimes to the detriment of caring for others.
Vaccinations may be a medical miracle for restoring public safety, but there is no miracle drug for restoring social capital and capacity. Just as people need vacations to relax and restore themselves from the efforts of work, people will need “vacations” to relax and restore themselves from the efforts of the past year. Managers should create and model those breaks for employees.
In addition, we need to restore social capital with our colleagues. Social capital is an emotional and professional resource we gain from our social connections. For example, when we have done a favor for someone, they feel a need to reciprocate. That connection, that shared obligation, is a resource we can all rely on in the future.
In these times, we have spent our social capital through hasty emails, failures to reciprocate, and loss of connection. Social capital needs to be renewed. Retreats where new team members can be socialized, where people can engage in small talk and find shared interests, and where relationships can be strengthened are important. Ideally, these retreats would be in-person, modeling new work arrangements for other employee groups. Research on virtual teams has demonstrated that virtual teams that have established trust and relationships through in-person meetings are better at collaborative work.
A turn for the better is still a turn: Use change management techniques.
All change is stressful . As discussed in previous blog posts, stress adds up, and even good things contribute to our overall stress load. It might be tempting to think of returns to workplaces and schools as “returning to normal” and therefore not a change but a restoration of hold habits. However, after a year, people in most parts of the country have adjusted to standing further apart, working from home, and interacting via webcam. Because of this, managers should use the tools of change management to help their organizations engage colleagues in changing behaviors—including a return to 2019 work behaviors.
When it comes to the adoption of new technology and processes, there are several types of people. First are the Pioneers. Pioneers seek out and embrace new ideas and initiatives. Engage Pioneers in trying out new processes and practices and share the successes they experience. Their stories and modeling can help others feel more comfortable. For example, early social media posts of the first people to receive COVID-19 vaccines helped allay fears among many about the vaccine. In the case of return to work, having these people try out the safety protocols and demonstrate the benefits of in-person work can serve those same purposes.
Then, reach out to your Yes People . Yes People may not volunteer for new things but will say yes when asked. After working out processes and procedures with the pioneers, including Yes People will provide more success stories and more feedback on what works.
These success stories will engage the Crowd Followers. Crowd Followers are more tentative and want to see how things are going before joining in. However, they also want to be part of successful movements and are attracted by momentum. Fear of missing out can be a powerful motivator, so having people share their stories through forums, blogs, and emails can be motivating for Crowd Followers.
Next will come the Skeptics . Unlike Crowd Followers , Skeptics need time and data to make their decisions and, therefore, will be slow to endorse or participate in new processes and practices. Be patient with them. Hosting Q&A sessions where they can ask questions and have time to consider the answers can be helpful. However, once convinced of the effectiveness of the new way, they are hearty defenders.
Finally, this leaves the people who will simply never embrace the change. In fact, because of the suddenness and forced nature of the change to remote work in 2020, they may be even more stubborn regarding changes away from remote work in 2021! Again, patience is required here. Sometimes, the people will begrudgingly follow along with the changes even if they never agree with them. That’s OK—rarely is there unanimous endorsement of any initiative.
In short, organizational leaders need to recognize the strain that 2020 put on professional and personal relationships and the cost to social capital. Then, they need to approach the return to 2019 normal as a significant change—with patience and a plan.
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