More than a year after successfully adapting to pandemic-related restrictions and disruptions, many businesses are beginning to think about what comes next. While some are embracing a hybrid work format that incorporates elements of remote work and in-office activity, others will return to pre-pandemic on-site operations.
Regardless of the arrangement, worker safety is top of mind. One survey found that 84 percent of employees are worried about their health and well-being when returning to work, and many businesses are making significant efforts to ensure their safety. For instance, 94 percent of businesses plan to limit face-to-face meetings, while 91 percent will provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies.
However, after this uniquely disruptive year, companies must do more than implement basic health and safety protocols. They need to ensure employees feel emotionally safe, creating conditions where employees feel healthy and productive in their workplaces. As Brian Kropp, Gartner’s vice president of research, notes, “In addition to providing masks, sanitizers and personal protective equipment, HR leaders must proactively monitor how employees feel about their work and workplace.”
In other words, companies need to develop workspaces characterized by healthfulness and safety to be successful in their reopening. Here are five ways to support worker emotional safety when welcoming employees back to work.
#1 Start with Leadership by Developing Facilitative Leaders
A staggering number of employees are burned out and exhausted, including leaders. According to a study on business leadership, nearly 60% of leaders feel “used up at the end of the day,” and 26% expect to leave their current company within the next year. For many, the past year has challenged their leadership capacity, adding stress and uncertainty to already challenging circumstances.
To navigate this transitional time of returning to the workplace, leaders will need to create emotionally safe workplaces where employees are comfortable asking questions, offering ideas, and confident that their leaders are present, engaged, and responsive.
Emotionally healthy individuals and teams rely on emotionally healthy leaders, making their well-being a critical foundation for creating an emotionally safe work environment. Now is the time to develop facilitative leaders – those who deliver results by focusing on rebuilding trust, collaboration, and leveraging work processes that emphasize cooperative decision-making.
Facilitative leaders will pause and process what happened over the last year and then lead their teams through an experience that provides an opportunity to evaluate the pandemic’s multifaceted impact and lessons learned. Engaging in these reflective practices enables the entire organization to do a cultural reset that maximizes emerging opportunities and re-confirms those existing conditions most important to an evolving and successful future.
#2 Reconnect to Values, Mission & Vision
A critical factor for a successful cultural reset is reconnecting to the values, mission, and vision. More than a year of disrupted workflows, accelerated and shifted decision-making, and virtual work away from colleagues has challenged even the most effective leaders and their teams to stay connected to the company’s values, mission and vision. As part of the reopening process, facilitative leaders will revisit these first principles, focusing on the organization’s foundational elements while also creating opportunities that ensure commitment to the values and alignment among mission, vision and the new future direction of the company.
Revisiting the values, mission and vision reminds everyone of the importance of their work and helps both leaders and employees process the experiences of the past year while planning for the future. Facilitative leaders know that doing this is foundational for regaining resilience and building team connections and relationships going forward.
Lived mission and vision might look different in a post-pandemic workplace, and that can be a good thing. Facilitative leaders encourage their teams to embrace challenges and shape the opportunities ahead, using the insights from the past year to create stronger, more sustainable solutions.
#3 Reimagine Communication and Collaboration to Reinforce Trust
Rules for communication and collaboration have been completely upended by the pandemic. Facilitative leaders will work with colleagues and their teams to reimagine these priorities, creating new best practices that propel their organization forward. Along the way, they will address many of the systemic problems that have become more acute during the pandemic.
Highly effective leaders emphasize and develop trust at every level. They utilize shared decision-making processes while building and sustaining employee confidence that their ideas are valued and appreciated. Facilitative leaders are managers of the decision-making process, rather than makers of all the decisions. They find opportunities to include team members appropriately, reinforcing the shared responsibility for accountability and achieving outcomes. They define decision-making protocols so that employees understand and are confident in their span of control and authority.
Emotionally safe employees are comfortable asking questions and offering ideas for improvements and innovations. To achieve this, facilitative leaders utilize inquiry techniques. This means they listen carefully and use neutral questions, checking in with their team members regularly to understand how they are doing and what is changing.
#4 Enhance Existing Success Metrics
The dramatic shift in work conditions over the past has clearly demonstrated that sustainable success takes more than focusing only on business results. Facilitative leaders know that, by focusing on processes, relationships, and business results, they can generate real-time insights into their team’s emotional well-being and ongoing collective development needs.
Since business success is often predicated on effective collaborative processes and relationships, evaluating these reinforces a sense of connection to the company. Facilitative leaders know that process and relationships are leading indicators of success, and measuring these organizational facets can help businesses ensure healthy teams and flourishing fundamentals.
#5 Be Adaptable
Finally, remember that this moment truly is unprecedented. Business leaders have never experienced a situation quite like this, and successfully navigating this moment will require malleable, adaptable leaders who are constantly evaluating their team’s emotional health, leveraging the best facilitative practices as they emerge and change. Fostering a safe culture won’t happen by accident, but it can be the difference between a false start and the first steps on a new journey that everyone takes together.