Monkey Puzzle Blog

Returning to work after the Pandemic

Advice for leaders - ensuring a successful return to work

It’s been just 6 weeks since most organisations introduced mandatory working from home. It needed to happen almost overnight and, in most instances, it did. At the time we predicted that it would test organisations and their people like never before, which would require leaders to lead like they’ve never done before.

We also said that the initial novelty of working from home with the ‘we’re all in this together’ spirit would soon lead to more complex issues. A great deal has happened over the past few weeks. While offices lie empty, for some the home has been a complex mix of workplace and school with the inevitable stress and anxiety. Others have been furloughed and may have lost their sense of connection and purpose.

Now, just as we have got used to the ‘different normal’ the government is cautiously talking about lifting restrictions. Some retail organisations are already starting to re-open although offices may take longer. As the possibility of a return to work becomes more likely, leaders are faced with not only managing the process but dealing with the many questions and complex issues that will arise.

Regardless of the exact timing, a strategy to deliver this successfully should be high on every leadership agenda.


The challenge will be considerable

Without a doubt, managing the return is likely to be every bit as complex as sending people home to work in the first place. With all the personal turmoil, possible bereavement, and on-going confusion, the challenge for any leader will be considerable.

These measures will help manage the process successfully:

Get your leadership team in shape

A face to face get together with your leadership team should happen in advance of everyone returning to the office. This is a scenario that no one has any previous experience of managing and everyone will be looking to their leadership for guidance. You’ll want to get this one right from the outset and that’ll need some preparation. What are the key objectives for the organisation and the associated messages?

Planning this as a leadership team will enable a much smoother return that having everyone, including leadership, trying to adjust together. This process should be ideally facilitated by someone who understands organisational dynamics which will give everyone a chance to reconnect, debrief the events of the past few weeks, take learnings, and plan together.

Prepare your line managers

Your line managers will be the ones whom your staff turn to first, right in the frontline, and facing all the difficult questions. As the link between the organisation and your people, they’ll need to understand and relate to their teams and their problems. They’ll be all the more equipped to do this with their own direction from the leadership team. That’s why it’s important to be clear on objectives and messaging. Your line managers will want to know what’s expected and where they can go for help - as they’ll certainly need it too.

Keep listening

Hopefully, you’ve developed good communications with your people whilst remote working. Don’t stop now. How are they coping? What’s on their minds - good and bad? Many will be delighted to be returning to a structure and colleagues they’ve missed, others will be worried about what’s happened while they've been away. Some may have experienced things that will take some time and sensitivity to manage, so give any mental health first aiders you have the resources and support they need.

You might consider surveying your employees before you start organising the return to work. It will provide you with invaluable data to help you plan and help prepare for the questions that will arise. They’ll have their concerns, being ready with the answers will be reassuring.

Communicate with clarity

This situation has left people mentally and emotionally tired, so be as open and honest as you can about what you are thinking and avoid big announcements. If a decision is unknown, let people know this is still an open decision and why. Now more than ever, people will appreciate the clarity. At the same time think through how to communicate with them and when. Think carefully about using email - would a phone call be more effective? You’ll want to re-engage them positively and avoid confusing messages.

Give recognition equally

Whether they’ve been working from home, keeping the office running, performing a key worker role, or furloughed, everyone will have been stretched out of their comfort zone. Be careful to identify any factions that might have started to appear. Some people not furloughed may resent those who were - and vice versa. Both sides may be struggling to empathise with the other. Acknowledge that together, they’ve all been through a lot and everyone deserves equal recognition.

Be ready to be flexible

The last few weeks will have seen many new ways to get work done, most of which won’t have involved going into the office. There’s a fair chance that a good proportion of your workforce won’t be rushing to get back on the bus or tube. You are certain to find more requests to work from home. Before COVID-19 some organisations denied flexible working on the basis that it was a perk or the technology wasn’t there. Now people have proven they can be productive working remotely, that objection won’t hold. How are you going to manage that - or address it if you can’t?

What’s more, you may have people who want to make lifestyle changes that go far beyond flexible working, they may want to request a sabbatical or leave altogether. Be ready to manage the unexpected.


In conclusion

Much will have changed while your organisation has been working remotely. The leaders who will be the most effective will recognise that the organisation that returns won’t just feel different, it’ll need to have anticipated that change and be receptive to it. While your organisation faces a different future to what will have been in your plans even a few months back, the most engaged organisations have always been those that share a strong sense of purpose, inspired by authentic leaders. That much hasn’t changed.

How you manage the way your people return to work will play a big part in how successful that new future is. It will call for a strategy based on forward planning, a lot of listening and empathy, clarity of message, and embracing flexibility.


For further information

If you have any questions about managing the issues around returning your employees to work, we are here to help.

We offer coaching and training for leaders to master communication, influence with integrity, and get a positive response from their people. Find out more about our Leadership Development programmes.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash


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