Help your people get back to work… carefully

As a business owner and leader you know what a challenge it is to get people to change. Some adapt to change quickly and easily, but most take time and some never make the transition at all. A typical adoption curve (Rogers) suggest that there’ll be about 16% innovators and early adopters, and about 16% laggards (people who take the longest to accept change). In between is the large majority of people, some of whom adapt quickly and some who take longer – an early majority of 34% and a late majority of 34%. 

However, this typical adoption curve has been turned on its head by the virus. Now every time I go for my daily walk, or shop at the supermarket, or talk to my neighbours or colleagues, I observe how almost everyone has adapted to change quickly. People wear masks, stand at large distances away from each other, don’t shake hands, work from home, use Zoom frequently and so on. And all of this has only taken a few weeks! Why has this happened? 

There are three main reasons, and the most obvious is that people didn’t want to get sick. Media coverage sparked fear, uncertainty and doubt. (The veracity of that same coverage we will debate for many years to come.) The images from China and Italy at the start of the pandemic were ghastly and powerful. 

Secondly, we were told to change by the government. Now this would not normally mean total adoption by the population (e.g., speeding, smoking), however the compliance by most was assured with a combination of: 

  • media coverage of such things as armoured tanks in the streets in Spain and Italy 

  • constant reinforcement of dramatic language such as ‘lockdown’, ‘state of emergency’ and everything being ‘unprecedented’ 

  • extra policing and threat of monetary fines;   

  • what Cialdini would refer to as the ‘Authority’ weapon of influence – using the Chief Medical Officer(s) as the experts to follow, rather than the politicians themselves

However, the most powerful reason why we adopted change so quickly was that we didn’t want to be responsible for infecting others. Once it became widespread knowledge that you could carry the virus without any ill-health symptoms, we were (nearly) all reluctant to have contact with anyone. Where I was assisting a client at the time, panic ensued if someone was in the same building as someone who knew someone who had it. Whole buildings of many thousands of people were evacuated, just because of one confirmed case. Nobody wanted the stigma of being the ‘carrier’ and sending organisations and/or family units into chaos. 

This brings us to the process of returning to work, back to relative normality. Now that we have been through a sudden change, how are we going to change back to where we were? Psychologists are referring to ‘reverse culture shock’ and ‘re-entry syndrome,’ based on research from returning Antarctic explorers and workers who had been confined for lengthy periods of time and then returned to normal society.

There are six key practical actions that as a leader you need to do to help people through the change of returning to work and normality: 

  1. People adjust at different paces. Some will waltz back into the office and others will be very hesitant. Allow time for people to recover. Use the adoption curve that I mentioned above as a general guide

  2. Continue the regular ‘check ins’ you were doing when everyone was working at home. They weren’t a controlling management technique to make sure people were actually working, were they? No, they are a way to increase collaboration and communication, and as such they should continue 

  3. Rethink the office layout so that there is more space for people. This might mean people having to share offices to reduce crowded workspaces. Show that you have thought it through, rather than everyone having to work it out for themselves

  4. Have zero tolerance for any new-found prejudice. Just because the virus started in China and mainly affected the elderly gives no reason for backhanded comments towards those groups (or others), however humorous might be their intention

  5. Know what to do when someone gets sick. Don’t fly into a panic and cause drama. Explain what might happen in advance to the team, so that everybody knows the protocols

  6. You may need to loosen performance-related metrics and such things as performance reviews. People have been through a lot – you don’t know what suffering friends and family of your staff have encountered. This will affect their productivity and performance.

Each of us has had different reactions to the virus, but there is one constant: we all have been impacted in some way. Now that we are seeing light, the change back to normality might just be as hard for some as the lockdown. Now, more than ever, you need to display good leadership and change management to help people through.