We’ve written so much about remote working and returning to work over the last two years, it feels very much like Groundhog Day. Not yet two weeks since the much-lauded ‘Freedom Day’, the government refuses to endorse a return to work and a poll shows that the vast majority of people want to continue to work flexibly.

Despite the continuing uncertainty, offices and workplaces are slowly opening up and people are tentatively resuming long-forgotten routines. We’re going back into a very different working environment than the one we left, and it’s one where leaders in particular need to deploy a very different set of skills.

Dig deep for resilience

Leaders returning to the workplace need to be more resilient and agile than ever. After 18 months of almost constant uncertainty, these are soft skills which are in very short supply for everyone. When we add bereavement, long-term illness, relationship breakdowns and multiple other life-changing situations into the mix, it’s very tough to keep ourselves motivated and positive, never mind anyone else. But that’s what leaders have to do – they have to motivate themselves and other people, and they’re going to need a lot of support.

Focus on empathy

The uncertainty hasn’t gone away, and we’re dealing with a lot of problems that didn’t exist pre-pandemic. Problem-solving and fast thinking require high levels of cognitive and executive function, also skills which have been drained by loneliness, long covid and grief. Leaders are going to need to display very high levels of empathy and accept that allowances will have to be made. People aren’t going to come into the office and pick up where they left off 18 months ago, too much has changed.

Keep communications short but sweet

Regardless of how keen people are to get back to the workplace and be around colleagues, we need to remember that communicating and collaborating in person will take a lot of getting used to. The mental effort required to be around people when you’re not used to it is quite exhausting – even a simple face-to-face conversation can feel like hard work. Try and keep meetings to a minimum at first and keep them short. Make sure people take breaks and encourage walks and fresh air.

Manage conflict

Many of us have experienced more negativity in the last 18 months than we would usually experience in a lifetime – that’s going to take its toll when we’re all back together. People are worn out and we’re stretched to the limit.  Tempers are likely to be frayed and patience will be in short supply. Irritants that we used to brush off could be the final straw for some people, so we’re likely to see a lot of conflict. Conflict isn’t always a bad thing – knowing how to handle and engage in healthy conflict is a very important soft skill. But conflict that comes about from tired, grieving, confused people being thrown into a room together for the first time in 18 months can be a touchpaper for rows that escalate, so it’s important for leaders and managers to know how to mediate and diffuse this type of situation. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a great resource for this.

Make allowances

We must accept that everything is different and make allowances. Leaders should make this very clear from the outset and establish a clear framework on how employees can be supported and access help. It’s really important that leaders and managers are also supported to deal with the emotions they’ll be confronted with. It can’t be left to chance, we can’t just throw open the doors and get back to normal. There has to be formal support and clear processes and frameworks for people of all levels to follow. We need a massive shift in the way we approach discipline in the workplace – it has to come from a place of concern, not a strict enforcement of rules.

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