After over a year of isolation, stress, and loss, we are starting to think ahead to a post-COVID-19 world. In some countries with high vaccination rates, and/or strong containment strategies, workers are starting to return to their workplaces.
It’s a move that many employees support. A recent survey by real estate firm JLL found that three out of four workers hoped to return to their workplace (though not necessarily the same office they left behind in early 2020). Of these, half were hoping for a hybrid arrangement, while a quarter wanted to work away from home full time. One out of four wanted to work remotely full time. But whatever working arrangement employees end up partaking in, we will all have to deal with the fallout from COVID-19.
During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a share that has been largely consistent, up from 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019. The results of this will not just suddenly vanish once we return to a more normal state. The effects will linger.
There are myriad things we will need to consider after the acute period of the pandemic ends, some of which we are not even aware of yet. While COVID-19 may be coming to an end, it has left an indelible mark on all of us that we have to recognize and be sensitive to in order to make a successful recovery. The good news is that emotional intelligence can help us as we navigate this new and complex time.
RECOGNIZING THAT ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL
Workplaces, beginning with leaders and HR departments, need to ramp up their awareness levels and recognize that COVID-19 has affected us all in different ways. Some of us have come through relatively unscathed, while others will need a period of time and help adjusting. This will require increased awareness, patience, and openness to new ideas and approaches.
INCREASING AWARENESS OF THOSE AROUND US
Managers, who have the most direct contact with their employees, will have to become more attuned to their staff. Not everyone who is struggling will reach out for help. Learning how to reach out and be there for staff without micromanaging will become a top skill for management. Management and human resources need to also take an active role in helping staff become more sensitive to and attuned to their colleagues, especially the ones returning to the workplace after working remotely.
There are many issues that will affect how willing and ready staff are to return to the workplace. High extroverts may have missed the workplace interaction in a big way, while quiet types may not relish the thought of having to be in close contact with their coworkers. In addition, people who have been bullied and harassed at work may dread having to return.
It would be easy for those in positions of authority to see some of their staff adjusting well and expect that everyone should be able to move along at the same pace. Even though we all went through COVID-19, our circumstances were very different, and the time and support needed afterward will vary from person to person. Some staff will have lost family members, or others close to them, and still be grieving. Others will have had a relatively easy time isolating, while for others it was a daily ordeal.
LEADING WITH OPENNESS, VULNERABILITY, AND ACTIVE LISTENING
This will be a new, unprecedented experience for leaders, as well as those who report to them. There is no road map for what we are going through in this time, and both groups will be learning, making mistakes, and adjusting as they go along. Leaders need to openly and honestly share their own experiences in order to give permission for everyone to do the same. This should be one of the first items on the agenda for meetings and continue to be until there is a shared consensus that the team is ready to move on. “To build relationships, ask yourself which distractions are getting in the way,” says Riaz Meghji, human connection expert and author of Every Conversation Counts. “Focus your attention on listening without assumptions, personal agendas, or multitasking, and watch your connections deepen.”
SETTING UP A SUPPORT NETWORK FOR MANAGEMENT
More will be expected of management as the workplace reopens, and they will carry added responsibility and have to increase and/or develop new skills. Having a well-developed support network set up will be very helpful in this regard. This should be set up apart from and over and above the regular meetings they have to discuss operational needs. Human resources can play a major role in setting up and providing support to this network.
Since managers working remotely will likely be returning to the workplace before staff, this is the ideal time to set up the network. It’s much better to have something set up ahead of time, instead of waiting until all staff members are on board and feeling overwhelmed by issues that have come up.
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