What a time we have all been through.
One of the many unusual aspects of this pandemic has been how the whole world has had shared experiences. Most of us have retreated to personal bubbles within our homes, worked remotely, and are hyper-alert to being physically distant from friends, colleagues, and people dear to us. I rapidly shifted my business online. I noticed the strain of looking into a camera and not being able to read people’s responses has stressed me. Insensitive interactions upset me rapidly.
I noticed too that as we re-enter our physical interactive world, group processes are valuable and enable us to create the new normal.
There are four distinct stages to ease into working together and hit the ground running: Reconnect, Reshape, Refresh, and Respond.
The best leaders don’t use these stages consecutively. The best leaders action these simultaneously. The four stages are interrelated, but for this article, I’m going to separate them and focus in on each one.
What happens to relationships when there’s a crisis or disruption, a restructure, if you or others go on holiday, or someone is ill for some weeks? What frequently gets lost are the informal connections of relationships among people. The first task of leaders and organizations is to create situations, where people can reconnect with one another on an informal level.
The simple greeting, “How are you doing?” is helpful.
This personal inquiry demonstrates care, and curiosity, about how the person is rather than a focus on a specific task.
Informal networks of relationships in organizations are based on five different criteria:
- who gets on with whom;
- who listens to whom;
- who influences whom;
- who trusts whom and of course who confides in whom; and
- who avoids whom.
These create movements among people that connect at a human level rather than on structural relationships. People respond to being companionable with one another. And it is these informal networks of companionable relationships that create a culture in organizations. Whether the culture is one of care, trust, influence, criticism, silos, or expertise, these informal connections reflect the power networks, and what gets done.
The impact of moving away from colleagues and friends
With COVID-19, most people were encouraged to retreat into bubbles. We moved away from many of the people we would interact with on a day-by-day basis. Those connections were broken and some were lost.
With the speed and urgency of the decisions being made by governments and organisations, some people have been in the centre and were included, others were excluded, or felt excluded. Something similar occurs in restructures where the consultation process might not include those affected at a depth where their interests and concerns are heard or acted on.
Naturally, there is a lot of feeling that gets generated with that. There are several ways to ease relationships and help people reconnect. The main way I will focus on here is storytelling – opportunities for people to share initially, in quite small groups, some of their experience.
How do we do this?
By asking questions or giving criteria that whether people have been in the thick of things and steering action, or whether they have been more on the periphery of childcare or caring for parents. Everyone’s experiences are important to those who have been part of them. Sharing experiences become the central aspect of what gets created going forward.
If you are leading a team or group session and you want people to reconnect, have people tell their stories.
There is a way of doing it so that everybody can relate to one another and everyone can participate.
These are the sorts of questions you might ask. For example, what was the most exciting, stimulating, or challenging thing that took you into new territory, and what did you learn about yourself?
With those questions, everyone, regardless of whether they were at home, at work, in the thick of the action, or more on the periphery, would have those experiences.
Most people would have been involved in something new. Hearing people tell their stories briefly, becomes very important to gain a shared understanding and shared appreciation.
Here is another question, what were you most proud of during the COVID-19 lockdown? Something that you’re involved in or something that occurred.
The other area of storytelling that’s important in this situation is, “What frustrated you the most?”
Hearing those stories and there will be some personal, and some work stories. Our personal lives and our work lives have just been interwoven and naturally the stories will be in both those territories. It is these latter stories, the frustrations which might well inform new approaches in how people work together going forward.
Recreating the personal care networks in your team and organisation become the life blood for moving forward.
TIP: Encourage yourself and each of your team members to think of four or five people that they can reach out by text or some of the three communication means like “How you’re going? I’d love to know where you’re up to, let’s talk.”
Help people reconnect and regenerate their relationships and establish new networks of relationships.
Many people don’t want to go back to what is or what was. We all have an opportunity to create a new normal. It is up to each of us to do this.
Questions to ask yourself:
Leaders, ask yourselves questions like, “What can be done remotely? What is possible? Do we need this particular role? Has it been evolved into something else?” These are tough questions, and ones that if you ask yourself, will help you move forward positively and not just ‘go back’ to what was.
In this period ask yourselves as leaders and leadership teams, “What is our purpose now?”
Decide the short-term purpose for your leadership team, and have a medium, and longer-term purpose. Once you do that, you have the freedom to make the decisions that you’ll need to make going forward.
The next question that every leader, leadership team, and their teams are likely to ask is, “How do we want to work together now?”
Most likely some people are going to want to work remotely. Others may well want to work fewer days than a full day, or full five-day week. Being willing and open to those possibilities becomes important.
Why is it that you need people present in the workplace? What is important? Ask yourself the same questions for meetings.
The stage of Reshape includes taking care of yourself, as leaders, as team members. In times of disruption, many people have worked more than eight-hour days for whatever reason. Decide not to respond to emails before 8 am or after 6 pm.
Know how to take care of yourself; eat well, keep yourself hydrated, and if you’re not already, learn again how to go to sleep, and how to stay asleep. Those three things become the core basis of your repair.
Other actions are to:
- Activate your support system. Don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help and be candid with what you share.
- Use humour to keep perspective. I enjoy comedians like Michael McIntyre, Rose Matefeo, or the many characters of Tom Sainsbury Tune into people and situations that are funny.
- Count your blessings. Some amazing things have happened amongst these very tough times.
Emotions at work
One question I am frequently asked as we return to workplaces is about feelings at work.
In addition to showing compassion and understanding, what else can we do in a professional setting? Many people in organisations report feeling guilty, they didn’t do enough, they couldn’t work/parent in the way they wanted to, or they feel a bit afraid. The stories that I spoke about earlier become important as people rapidly realize that they’re in a shared territory. The main thing is to realise without their usual peer relationships where people discuss their feeling responses with one another, people have and are experiencing strong feelings.
One approach to assisting your staff and team manage ‘feelings’ is to consider, “Is this just my personal feeling, or could this feeling or emotion belong in our group? Could it belong in our organization? Or does it belong with our stakeholders and our communities?” And if it does, what do I want to do about it? A leaders role is to reassure. Certainly, compassion, and empathy, and understanding go a long way with these strong feelings, but I am encouraging clients to have conversations within their teams like, “Do you think this is something that is in our group, this feeling? Do you think it’s in our organization? And what might we do about it together?” This way you will tap into more creative responses.
Many of you have been involved in some remarkable innovations during this particular period, and you may have been a part of some very big decisions that were made rapidly.
Take two things into consideration here. One is that the number of people who have been involved in decision making was narrowed down considerably. Leaders who would usually be consulted weren’t. This has created an in-group, and an outgroup of who was involved, and who was managing “business as usual”, whether that was at home or in the workplace. Inclusions and exclusion derive powerful feelings and perceptions and are drivers for default behaviour.
In this particular territory, in people having been in their bubbles, will have had a resolve about not going back to the same old stuff, and mostly, people are talking about equity and fairness when they’re in that particular territory. The perception that these principles have been transgressed is strong.
What we have now is an opportunity for innovation. I know in your organizations, many things have been done that have never been done before that have been done well, that have been done rapidly. You now know you have that capacity in your organization. There is a chance to think for yourselves, “What is it that we want to do going forward from here. What do we keep doing? What do we stop doing? And what do we start doing?” And we also need to tap into that with the individuals that are in our organizations. Find out what is the thing, what did they notice that they want to continue having as a part of the organizational culture, practice, or policies?
What are you going to measure to know that you’re successful?
The things that get measured must be the things that are important to you, your organization, and your customers. Metrics so people can see the progress that’s being made. What you measure matters as you go forward in your team?
What everyone has been through gives us a capacity not to just do what we’ve been doing before but to respond, be proactive, and release as an organization where you want to influence. Deciding how to respond becomes important. You are likely to encounter people wanting to go back to the old way. Sometimes that will be a mistake. Sometimes people will have forgotten that we’re going into new territory, and sometimes, there will be resistance.
Keep sharing your vision, sharing the direction the group is going to go into, or go in, and open up that agenda.
As with any new changes and a big event, many people will be critical. They want to criticize what has been done. Learning how to respond to criticism, and to maintain your relationships. Every leader needs to develop their capacity to respond to criticisms because they’re just going to come.
Being able to mirror what you’re hearing and to be able to without explaining or justify, to be able to give the information that’s required to respond, and to maintain a relationship. Particularly, with your customers and the public, it’s really important at this point, not to get frustrated or defensive, more to remain open and responsive. That builds your reputation as a group that responds and delivers.
Use these stages of group development to shape your re-entry.