How to support our teams as we begin life post-lockdown

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As lockdown lifts, many people will adapt quickly, but some will struggle to re-adapt and we need to create workplaces that allow both groups to flourish suggests Josh Krichefski, Global COO.

I’m writing this on April 16th and have just walked past a pub garden full of groups of friends who’ve booked a strategic day off, families sitting eating lunch, and a couple of groups of new mums chatting with a wine in-hand. It was a joy to see and without sounding too much like life revolves around a pub, there was something so relieving and reassuring about seeing groups chatting and laughing together. It is little things like this that we’ve all missed – we don’t miss the actual shop or a pub, we can shop online or drink at home, we miss the social interaction, the culture of it and the break from work or our standard day.

As lockdown lifts more and more, and hopefully for good, over the year, a celebratory atmosphere will no doubt take hold.

Many people will adapt quickly and the year will be a joy for them! However, many will struggle to re-adapt and we need to create workplaces that allow both groups to flourish.

Within business, we need to be conscious of that and supportive of everyone’s needs – listen, consider and engage with our teams as we re-start. We need to over-communicate and over-engineer ways to keep an eye on our people and make sure they’re coping ok and are thriving. Only then can we say we’ve recovered.

Supporting everyone’s return to “normality”

For over a year, we’ve been told methodically by Governments, health experts and each other to stay away from people, stay home and do without all of the things that previously defined our everyday. We have all been on a rotating cycle of emotions – worried, fearful, frustrated, angry, relieved, happy, hopeful, and then back round again when we hit a bump in the pandemic road.

And now we are about to tell people that they can, and the underlying suggestion will undoubtedly be that they should, scrap all that. Get outside – go to the cinema with 300 people, squeeze your way to the front of that gig, sit in an office less than a metre from several people. Go out and make the most of it! Say yes to all plans and offers – make plans and fill your time up. Don’t have restful weekends at home because what if another lockdown comes?!

If you’re someone who struggles to adapt and is nervous about these things, then the celebratory “post-war” feeling some will be feeling – and we likely all believe we should be feeling – is tinged and sometimes completely overtaken by overwhelming anxiety.

This will hopefully be a short-term issue that will ease with time, but it’s one that leaders must be aware of and act on. We can’t keep referring to the “new normal” as if it will slip into place easily. We need to be active, conscious and self-aware enough as leaders to know that there is a role we play in supporting our people and helping them re-adapt.

There are three core things I’ll be doing to hopefully ease people back that I wanted to share in case others are worrying about this same issue.

1. Truly listening and making workplace decisions as a level-agnostic democracy

At MediaCom across the world we adapted to the pandemic and created working practices to support our people as they worked 100% remotely. Even before Covid, we were used to agile working globally. Across the world, on principle we allow people to work fluidly and have done for some time. Depending on the needs of each office in each market, we then put support mechanisms around that to make sure people get what they need no matter where they are working from. These include check-ins with both line managers but also mental health allies should they want that, the use of Unmind, and MediaCom Unplugged, which encourages people to switch off and avoid work creep.

And as we look to move back to an office environment, plans and proposals are being researched through staff surveys and communicated through town halls, team huddles and live Q&As. Some people will absolutely prefer to work remotely the majority of the time, and that’s supported. But for example, in our situation, taking that and saying “ok we’ll go 100% virtual” would have been a mistake and we’ve only really been able to see that through listening to the views of everyone across the business.

The main point I’m keeping in my head is that making a decision about how we work cannot sit at a board or management level. Making these decisions with input from all levels, all divisions and therefore all mindsets is vital.

2. Being adaptable

Once we’re working in a hybrid structure, the definition of that will change over time. I don’t think any plans being put in place now can be set in stone. For example, culture is so important to us and if we find that in a hybrid working environment, some of our people are in fact not feeling as engaged or are not able to learn or grow as quickly because they’re not in the office around colleagues as often, we will look at that and open it up to discussion.

Similarly, across the different markets, we’ll be offering the same flexibility, but we know that different offices have different preferences. Much of that is about the culture in those countries of course and we need to be flexible and adaptive enough to keep refining our working practices to suit our people.

My point here is that this is new territory and for the first time in living memory, we are able to redefine what the workplace really is… we won’t get it right first time so we need to be able to flex and be comfortable doing so.

3. Lean into over-communication

At MediaCom, we have always lived by the principle that leadership is not about broadcast. Positive leadership and a strong culture comes from two-way communication between leaders and the teams who make our businesses what they are.

This principle is about to be tested. As I said at the start of this article, we are about to see a lot of our people struggle as they re-adapt to “normal” life again. But because part of this, in most businesses, is going to mean hybrid working where we’ll never again sit all together in one office, it’s going to be really hard to spot those who are struggling and know how to help them.

This means businesses need to over-engineer ways to spot the signs. We need to be open and honest in our communication and clear that everyone should feel free to adapt at their own pace. And importantly, we need to make managers aware of this likely phenomenon and help ready them to support their people.

These are three principles I’ll be sticking to and I’m sure I’ll add to them. The key point is that while this is an exciting time and we’ll be able to enjoy simple pleasures again, not everyone will feel the same about that.

As leaders we have to be so careful not to force everyone to switch back on. When the war ended, celebration came but so did stress and long-term anxiety. This may seem a distant memory but the world has just been through a life-changing event. We need to learn from the past and put in place routines, processes and support to help people through.

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