At this writing, the Earth is still in the grip of an unprecedented pandemic. In most industrial and post-modern civilizations, literally everyone – employers, employees, freelance entrepreneurs and investors alike – have had their lives, their habits and their socio-economic supply chains disrupted.
In most cases, the return-to-work order will happen after a traumatic two-month work hiatus spent in “solitary confinement” or mastering distance-working while coping with kids around the clock. You’ve watched assorted heads of state “lead” only to inseminate confusion. For two months, you’ve staunched the fear of dying; juggled one-way outbound finances; and wondered if there will even be work to go back to. In short, you’ve just spent two months exploring the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
Return-to-work orders around the world will be issued according to each nation’s cultural, political and economic underpinnings as much as to its public health welfare. That, in itself is worrisome, both for public safety and supply chains. Not everyone everywhere will be ready and functional at the same time.
Most returning employees are going to know someone, directly or indirectly, who has died of the dreaded COVID-19 disease; everyone will have a sad story that needs to be told and, more essentially, to be heard. All will be grieving, if not for loss of human life, certainly for the loss of “normalcy” as we knew it. Our very lives will have been upended.
Above all, our lives are now potentially endangered by our very return to the workplace.
And the boss still wants “normal”?!
For the most part, we, the general population around the world, have cooperated with the quixotic and often confusing roll-out of new rules to preserve human life. We adapted to radical stay-at-home and no-fly orders. We have suffered the nightly new litany of mortality and hospitalization statistics. We have hoisted new talking heads like idols to national influencing pedestals and toppled others.
We are agitated. And there is no way we are unchanged.
So, it would be unreasonable of you – DHRS, CEOs, and small business owners – to expect us to sweep our newly-minted existential transformation under the proverbial carpet with a cut-and-dry Back to Work Edict from Above. Spare us the old Them and Us distancing; WE have shared the trenches and WE shall overcome!
But we are a bit bruised if not broken. We need for you to see us and to acknowledge how clever we are to have survived. We need you to welcome us back into the fold with compassion. We need you to listen to us, not only for our sad stories but also to learn of the wealth of new insights, resourcefulness, and good ideas we have to share.
Are you ready?
The need for a different kind of expertise
The success of your company’s work re-entry will be directly proportionate to the attention and importance given to listening to each employee’s experiential stories and lessons learned, from the managing director to the doorman. These stories are going to be rife with something that business management tends to shy away from: emotion.
The DHR’s the key expectation right now will be to facilitate the workforce’s return to productivity. Without providing a thorough, universal, emotional debriefing throughout the hierarchy of your organisation, performance and productivity will suffer.
It’s not managers, with their bottom-line focus, who are going to best facilitate the emotional aspects of the return-to-work event. Emotional debriefings require more than the skill of “Emotional Intelligence”. They require expertise in listening, observation, reframing, behavioural adaptation, and communications in order to establish a high level of trust so as not to be perceived as just another form of employee exploitation. (In the long term, emotional and creativity debriefings should be integrated into the company’s circular feedback loop.)
The experts your organization needs right now are the masters of “soft” management: professional coaches, coaching-trained mentors and coach-approach trainers equipped to lead emotional debriefing sessions, both individually and in groups.
Individual or small-group debriefing sessions will have a far greater, more positive impact than an inspirational pep talk from your CEO, though the visibility and concern of top management at this time must be part of any successful re-entry strategy.
Coaches, however, will know how to elicit, listen to, and reframe employee stories and emotions in a manner free of hurtful value judgments and blaming, of which we have seen far too much on social and news media. By transforming nervous (and potentially negative and aggressive) employee and management energy to positive impetus for the future; by curing the insidious sicknesses of fear, misinformation, pessimism, and even nihilism to free up preoccupied minds, coaches act as catalysts for creating or restoring productive team spirit and corporate culture of the post-modern work ethic.
Before rushing out to contract a coach for re-entry purposes, here are some techniques and methods to be on the lookout for:
Basic life coaching to improve listening and feedback skills among colleagues and promote respectful, helpful participation in teamwork and corporate life.
The 5-step Kübler-Ross Model to address the grief employees may be feeling, either from the deaths of family or friends due to COVID-19 or, symbolically, from the loss of former normalcy. Adding a sixth step: Meaning is essential. (What does all of this planetary upheaval mean to me, my family, my company, my nation, and how am I/are we going to adapt? Identifying proverbial “silver linings” – individually and collectively – to the current upheaval can greatly benefit the organization.)
Creative Problem Solving (CPS) to engage all employees at all levels in the exciting dynamics of exploring potential safely to find mutual solutions and innovative ways of working in the future. This is a good method for increasing participative involvement, identifying “silver linings”, and accepting shared responsibility in the “new normalcy” of an unknown future.
Neurolinguistic Programming, with it’s vast tool box for elegantly addressing, reframing and eliminating behavioural blockages, to bring about collaborative change and flexibility.
Non Violent Communication (NVC), with its easy-to-learn format, to effectively resolve emotional conflict.
Transactional Analysis (TA) to illustrate behavioural impediments to successful negotiations, thanks to the flexibility of its application to individuals, corporations and cultures alike.
Relaxation therapy (sophrology), such as breathing techniques, meditation, and mindfulness, in order to broaden thresholds of receptivity and deepen understanding of new ways of thinking and doing.
Basically, anyone who is unable on an existential level to “re-purpose” trauma through new insights after this global crisis risks long-term dissatisfaction or dysfunction, neither of which promises success for a company’s chosen mission.