How To Lead With Compassion On The Return To The Office

Lead With Compassion On The Return To The Office

By David Liddle

Managers are about to face one of the biggest challenges of their careers as organisations start to gear up for a gradual return to the office.  Compassionate, inclusive, and values-based leadership will be the key to post-pandemic business recovery.

In the space of a year, as the pandemic has raged across the globe, our working lives have changed dramatically, and probably irreversibly. The world’s biggest (unintentional) remote working experiment has demonstrated that certainly for many of those in professional occupations, it is indeed possible to keep the wheels turning without vast swathes of staff crammed together in the same physical space.

Spurred on by this, some organisations (Twitter, Nationwide) have adopted ‘remote first’ working policies, while others (Deloitte, Schroders) are shifting to hybrid arrangements. At the other end of the scale, Goldman Sachs is actively encouraging its staff to get back into the office, with Chief Executive David Solomon describing working from home as “an aberration”.

But whatever stance their organisation is taking, employees are likely to find the adjustment to the ‘new normal’ difficult. Many will be returning to work jaded and exhausted by the turbulence, stresses and strains of the past year. Getting them fully re-engaged with their role, reconnected with each other and delivering the high performance recovering organisations will need is going to be a momentous challenge.

new normal

Treating people well, with respect, fairness, equity and kindness will be key if organisations – and the people within them – are to thrive. But what does that look like in practice? How well equipped are leaders and managers to step up to the task of getting the best out of exhausted and often disparate teams, while also looking after the well-being of their people?

Taking an people centred and values based approach

The first step to creating a compassionate climate within a team is to recognise that every employee’s experience of the pandemic will have been different. Some people may have suffered bereavement or had to deal with personal or family illness. Others may have been desperately juggling home schooling with a demanding role, while some staff will be returning after an extended period of furlough.

The first step to creating a compassionate climate within a team is to recognise that every employee’s experience of the pandemic will have been different.

Mental health issues, of varying degrees, are likely to be prevalent. Recent research from the Mental Health Foundation has found that although anxiety about the pandemic itself has become less common, an increasing number of people now feel lonely and ground down by the stress of the past year.

A one-size-fits-all approach is simply not going to work in this scenario. Managers need to sit down one-to-one with their people and listen, with empathy and compassion, to how they are feeling and what they need. This also isn’t the time for rigid enforcement of corporate policies. Managers need to act in the way that is best for the people they are responsible for, using their own judgement about how to adapt the ‘rules’ when needed. This is where values-driven leadership comes into its own. If values are the golden thread running through the organisation, managers will be able to use these as a guide when making difficult decisions.

Showing compassion in this way isn’t about being ‘soft’, it’s about being human.

Communicate the transition process clearly

Making it clear how the move back to the office or the transition to new working arrangements will be managed is vital. Some employees will have real fears about returning to a physical environment. A recent survey from IoT company Disruptive Technologies suggests more than half of workers are afraid to return to the office because of concerns about cleanliness and social distancing.

A move to unfamiliar, hybrid working arrangements can also be disconcerting for employees. Some may be worried that having less of a physical presence could put them at a disadvantage when it comes to plum projects or promotion. Others may be concerned about how they will build good working relationships with new colleagues who they will rarely, if ever, meet in person.

Open, transparent discussions are the key. Leaders need to be honest about any challenges the business may be facing, to encourage their people to voice their concerns openly and to invite ideas about how the ‘new normal’ can be managed effectively.

Open transparent discussion

Create psychological safety

A psychologically safe environment is one where people are free to be themselves and know they can raise issues or talk about things that are troubling them without fear of ridicule, retribution or damage to their careers.

Leaders can help to build this climate by creating forums for conversation and facilitating respectful dialogue and debate. Accepting mistakes and allowing room for growth and learning is also important. Many people may have lost confidence over the past year, or if experiencing anxiety, may find it hard to concentrate and be more prone to making errors. They need support and guidance, not dragging through a punitive performance review or disciplinary action.

Leaders who are willing to show vulnerability themselves and be human, rather than always retreating behind a professional façade, can do much to create a psychologically safe climate.

Tackle conflict quickly and openly

Leaders who are willing to show vulnerability themselves and be human, rather than always retreating behind a professional façade, can do much to create a psychologically safe climate.

With increased levels of stress and anxiety, it is hardly surprising that we are already seeing a rise in levels of workplace conflict. Developing a fair and just culture, where people can resolve conflict, complaints and concerns compassionately and collaboratively, will be integral to organisations’ ability to emerge from the pandemic in good shape. What this means in practice is moving away from rigid, adversarial disciplinary and grievance procedures and replacing them instead with a Resolution Framework, which gives managers a range of options for solving issues, including informal dialogue, facilitated conversations and mediation – only resorting to formal procedures as a last resort when all else has failed. This approach, which moves people away from right/wrong, win/lose mindsets, is probably the most compassionate thing as an organisation can do for its people.  Retail bank TSB is one organisation that has adopted this approach, launching a resolution first approach mid-pandemic, because it recognised the contribution this would make to employee wellbeing (as well as performance, inclusivity, and customer focus) at a difficult time.

The business benefits

A compassionate and inclusive approach is integral to an organisation’s commitment to enhancing its overall employee experience (EX). But there are many business benefits too. There is a direct link, for example, between employee experience and customer experience. As Ted Stone, CEO of Customer First, says in my forthcoming book Transformational Culture: “You can have the most fantastic product or service offering in your market segment, but if you have staff who feel overworked and undervalued, it will consistently degrade the customer experience.”

At a time when people are still reeling from the pandemic, it simply will not be possible to engage staff and enable them to be their best without a more human and humane approach. More than ever, leaders owe it to their teams and organisations to embrace the transformational principles of compassion and inclusivity.

About the Author

David Liddle

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group, and founding president of the Institute of Organizational Dynamics. He is author of best seller Managing Conflict and his next boot Transformational Culture is due to be published in Autumn 2021


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