Engaging with corporate leaders on planning and implementing a reopening strategy offers learning leaders a chance to shape their organizational culture. In a more practical way, it’s an opportunity to lead with teaching and coaching that can help the reopening flow smoothly rather than stumble in ways that could result in high turnover or disgruntled employees.
How can learning leaders ease the transition to on-site and hybrid work?
Several ways that the involvement of learning leaders can smooth the return to the office are described below. Each organization will have a unique set of concerns and local or state laws to work with, but the guidance below summarizes key considerations most organizations and their leaders will face.
Planning for reopening needs to start well ahead of the planned reopening date. Jump-start this planning with a survey of stakeholders. Will your organization implement a phased reopening? This could entail bringing back one department or team at a time, or asking people to work on-site one or two days a week initially.
With their expertise in project planning and management, learning leaders are well positioned to coordinate communication of the planning, including leading discussions or brainstorming sessions to determine how the reopening will unfold. Consider:
- Which employees are most needed on-site? Why?
- How many people can safely work in your office space?
- Which teams or individuals need to be on site at the same time to maximize productivity?
- How much flexibility will workers have to decide when and how often to work in the office vs. at home?
- What procedures will the company put into place to keep workers safe? How will these be monitored or enforced?
- How will business travel be handled? What if an employee isn’t comfortable traveling yet?
Get the message out
Once the organizational leaders have formulated a reopening plan, learning leaders are the ideal team to take on communications and training. Employees need to know what’s going to happen and when, and they will look to the L&D team for information on new policies and practices. Learning leaders can take the lead in communicating expectations and policies to the employees. As a team with regular contact with all employees and strong cross-departmental relationships, L&D leaders can easily create and disseminate messaging, flow diagrams, and mini-training courses that explain the reopening process.
Anticipate questions and prepare a consistent response
Prepare for the inevitable questions and pushback. Whether employers plan to require that returning employees be vaccinated—even may ask employees about their vaccination status—varies by state and by company.
Regardless of the policy, most workplaces will need to prepare for questions from returning workers about how they know they’ll be safe and what is required. Employees may also worry about how they’ll know if they’ve been exposed to COVID, what happens if they or a family member becomes ill, and how immuno-compromised and other vulnerable employees and family members can be protected. They may want to know who has been vaccinated or how the company intends to monitor exposure.
Employees are also likely to ask about continuing to work from home. What’s allowed? How much flexibility is there in choosing how many or which days to work remotely?
Learning leaders can coach executives to come up with clear, reasonable explanations of their policies and answers to the inevitable questions—and then help get the word out. Leading this effort can help learning leaders ensure that all the managers are on the same page and that employees get consistent messaging.
Create training on new protocols
New protocols will be needed for everything from where employees may eat their lunches to how many people are allowed into a meeting room. And new health and safety procedures may be in place.
Learning leaders may be on the committees that formulate these protocols (you should be!) Even if you’re not part of the decision-making process, L&D teams will drive the education and implementation. To inform, educate, and train workers in all the new rules, think creatively: You may need to create animations, infographics, printed posters and charts, games, short simulations, and more!
Offer coaching for managers
Managers are likely to be tasked with presenting policies to their teams. Whether the organization is mandating that everyone return to the office, letting people choose, or settling on a hybrid strategy, some workers will be pleased—and others will not.
Learning leaders can proactively step in with coaching for managers. In addition to coaching managers on leading hybrid teams, look to your training on conflict resolution, negotiation, and problem-solving. You can coach managers to convey the organization's reopening strategy in a sensitive but firm manner. L&D teams might also be able to come up with short simulations or decision trees to help managers navigate potentially contentious conversations.
Don’t neglect interpersonal guidelines. If the organization is requiring distancing, masking, or other precautions, they’ll need to decide who’s going to enforce the rules and what to do when people refuse to comply. Managers may need coaching on how to address employees who refuse to comply or “forget” the rules. They are also likely to need guidance on shutting down intrusive questions or badgering between workers.
Learning leaders can dig into their toolkits and pull from personal experience in coaching managers and even employees on what’s acceptable and what’s not, how to shut down comments that are too personal, and how to defuse tension or conflict.
Lead with empathy
Whatever their role, wherever in the country they live, workers generally share a common trait: Anxiety about being back in the office. Some are eager to get back, others prefer working remotely, but all have experienced a significant change in how they interact with others. Policies need to balance the needs and goals of the organization with people’s experience and fears.
This is where additional coaching and training can be extremely helpful. Learning leaders can pull from training on clear, respectful, and inclusive communication and negotiation, defusing tension, and empathy.
Management might consider surveying employees about the return to the office, including questions about extenuating circumstances that could make on-site working difficult or impossible, and what could make the return to the office easier. Learning leaders could take on a facilitator role if large gaps between management’s proposal for reopening and what employees want need bridging.
Alison Green, author of the “Ask a Manager” blog, wrote on Slate: “Employers should also recognize the significant break in trust between individuals and institutions, and know that won’t be repaired overnight. That doesn’t mean employers can’t bring people back when it’s truly safe to do so, but there’s going to be anxiety in their ranks for a long time—and the more they can be sensitive to and patient with that, the better reopenings are likely to go.”
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