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Putting people first: six lessons for leaders as people return to the office

When organisations get an amber light to slowly reopen, business leaders need to confront their people’s widespread anxiety to encourage them back to the office. While there are plenty of physical changes required to make offices as safe as possible, leaders will still need to find ingenious ways to create a sense of security and confidence.

Putting people first is the only route to reviving business. It’s paramount for leaders to understand and support people who are anxious about the risks of catching the coronavirus from commuting, inadequate social distancing in the office, or business travel. This means companies must be more sensitive than ever as they rewrite policies supporting flexible working arrangements, job sharing, and family and sick leave.

The real difference, though, will come from inspiring and motivating employees to help build a successful future. Having worked with many leaders to redefine their companies, we know the greatest impacts come when leaders create a real connection to their people and personally build enough confidence to create followership.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Mount Sinai Health System, a New York hospital network at the epicentre of the outbreak, has been building confidence and camaraderie among its employees, many of whom are frontline workers whose jobs require them to face the risk of infection. While the challenges they faced were unique, Mount Sinai’s actions offer six lessons for leaders across industries as they reopen their offices.          

1.    Communicate frequently

Mount Sinai leaders have sent daily emails to all employees, keeping everyone updated on the coronavirus crisis. The emails have included the latest COVID-19 patient counts, reports from frontline hospital workers, and responses to staff concerns.

Such frequent communication doesn’t only directly answer employee concerns and build a supportive, listening culture. By investing in preparing thoughtful messaging and long-term engagement campaigns, leaders can glean insights through open and ongoing dialog at all levels. They can then use those insights to inform further actions that allay people’s concerns about returning to the office.

2.    Instil a supportive culture

Leaders should model behaviours that demonstrate the need for people to help each other and celebrate those who do so. Mount Sinai’s emails convey deep gratitude for the heroic work of employees, from nurses to housekeepers. Chief Executive Ken Davis and the Mount Sinai Trustees arranged for free hotel rooms and meals for staff and marshalled a global effort to acquire critical resources for employees. They even reached out to Warren Buffet; whose planes transported tons of personal protective equipment from China.

As non-essential workers return to the workplace, organisations have a choice. They can either leverage the people-centred culture many have built during the pandemic by creating a sense of individual and collective support and wellbeing while positioning themselves as a force for good to release positive energy. Or they can revert to pre-pandemic business philosophies often characterised by rule adherence and fear.   

3.    Allow people to grieve for the past

As organisations move forward with a new purpose, they must recognise everyone will be on a different timeline as individuals process their grief and deal with personal anxieties. Mount Sinai leaders shared their grief over the death of one of their nurses, openly discussed the traumatic impact of COVID-19, and established a new counselling and research centre to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in employees.

Organisations that offer wellness programs as part of the overall benefits package should promote their accessibility and ensure enough quality counsellors are available. For those that haven’t previously prioritised wellness in their benefits offering, doing so now will give people the expert help they need to be open and honest about how they’re feeling, enabling them to be comfortable back in the office.

4.    Be honest

Don’t sugar-coat messages. Tell it how it is. There’s no getting around the deadly nature of COVID-19, whether your organisation is a hospital or a bank, people need to have clear information on the stance the organisation is taking to make informed choices  that are right for their individual circumstances.

People often show tremendous resilience during a crisis. Leaders who tell employees the truth reduce the inevitable stress caused when people feel out of control.

5.    Don’t try to have all the answers

The return to the office is an opportunity to build trust by embracing the fact that “we’re all in this together.” While business leaders might be taking more time to understand what the pandemic means for their organisation, they, like there people, don’t have definitive answers to the challenges. Mount Sinai readily acknowledges “there is so much we don’t know.”

So, it’s better to motivate teams by acknowledging this uncertainty and creating an open environment where everyone can share ideas to pull together towards the new normal.

6.    Trust people to make good decisions

In times of crisis, people need to know they can act decisively without repercussions. As organisations adjust to meet new demands and targets, employees should be aware the business appreciates their decisive actions. That’s why Mount Sinai leaders describe their colleagues’ actions as “awe-inspiring.”

To nurture this culture, leaders must adopt a new and better way to lead, actively communicating that people can make everyday decisions without senior approval. Occasionally, there will be a wrong decision, but it’s important to accept failure as essential to finding the best route forward – the cost of bad decision will be less than the cost of a delayed decision.

Trust will be essential in the return to the office after COVID-19

These are the same principles of frank, empathetic leadership that have enabled great leaders to successfully navigate some of the most challenging corporate crises in history.

In 2014, they motivated Mary Barra, the recently appointed CEO of General Motors, to publicly apologise for an ignition malfunction that resulted in 124 deaths and subsequent cover up. Her actions ended GM’s corporate culture of blame and reprisal, shifting it to one of trust and collaboration by pledging to “recognise employees who discover and report safety issues,” and “identify ways to make vehicles safer.”

And in 1982, they guided James Burke, CEO of Johnson and Johnson, to stand by the company’s purpose of putting people before profits as he recalled every bottle of Tylenol after cyanide was found in a small percentage of pills. Ultimately, Burke’s determined leadership made Johnson and Johnson a company widely admired by its employees, customers, and shareholders.

Today, leadership is being put to the test again. Some people are counting the minutes until they can burst back out into the world, others are terrified of the potential consequences of leaving home, both for themselves and for others. Leaders who respond with humility in the absence of certainty, and in ways that are ethical, honest, and true to their values, will help instil confidence in their employees. Only then will we see a workforce that’s ready to emerge from isolation, return to the office, and perform as a collective.

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