Over the last year, companies, teams, and individuals have been doing everything they can to make the transition from working together in an office environment to working remotely at home go as smooth as possible. We’ve adopted new routines and strategies, embraced technology to keep us connected and productive, and have figured out how to live, work, and play, all within the same four walls. But now as vaccines are rolling out across the globe, we’ve got to figure out how to reverse engineer what we’ve spent a year working toward. How can we productively undo what we spent a year doing while keeping the best parts of it?
According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, moving your team back into the office from working remotely will be more difficult than the transition to working from home was. The primary reason for this is the way our brains process change. When everyone transitioned to working from home last year, we were bolstered by the satisfaction of problem-solving, the creativity that comes from making decisions in the unknown, and the sense of pride that comes from conquering something we’ve never done before. The reverse transition, however, comes with the memories of our old habits and routines. The slight differences to our muscle memory, like social distancing in the lunchroom, temperature checks in the lobby, and wearing masks in the office feel more disruptive because they are adjustments to the way your brain automatically thinks based on the template of how things were before. This makes a “new normal” more uncomfortable and requires more mental energy than navigating uncharted territory.
Whatever your company’s approach to returning to the office, it likely won’t be simply transporting your team back to your 2019 office life and workplace culture. The collective experience of pandemic work-life has permanently changed the way teams interact with each other. Even individuals and companies that didn’t pay much thought to culture and company norms have been forced to consider how their employees interact with one another, the amount of flexibility their teams need, and the overall wellbeing of their teams.
In order to make the transition back to in-person work less stressful and to help teams adapt more quickly, focusing on what we’ve learned from the last year and how to incorporate the good stuff will make the transition smoother and less stressful and will allow high-performing teams to continue to sustain their peak performance without skipping a beat.
One of the most significant themes that emerged over the last year of remote working was flexibility. Employers and managers needed to have flexibility when it came to transitioning their team to working from home. This required managers to get creative with their schedules and work time; provide leeway for employees with families, children, and other responsibilities; and open up more opportunities for asynchronous work. Without a clear “end date,” many companies made predictions or set return dates throughout 2020 that ultimately had to be postponed, requiring flexibility both from the company and employees. This understanding and flexibility resulted in employees feeling like they were being seen as people by their managers which in turn led to greater engagement with their work.
In addition to leaders being flexible with scheduling, emotional flexibility also proved to be a crucial asset as the weeks and months turned into a year of remote working. Leaders who were mindful of not just reacting but being strategic when it came to managing the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that arose as a result of challenges encountered were able to maintain the levels of productivity and performance that they were used to when in the office. Emotional flexibility helps with shifting from just managing employees or reacting to issues as they arise to coaching and leading teams to become more resilient, empowered, and to grow as leaders themselves.
Holding onto both types of flexibility once back in the office will make the transition smoother and will increase the likelihood of maintaining the engagement that everyone worked so hard on building over the last year. Talking about your re-entry plan as a team and a company can help employees plan for the future. Being flexible around phasing back into the office, and allowing teams to have input into what that looks like, as opposed to making the decision on the company level or the individual level makes the most sense from a productivity perspective, and makes employees feel valued as people, not just workers. Embracing the coaching leadership style as a component of your team’s culture provides the support that makes emotional flexibility possible.
Harness mental agility
While there are many skills that will always be valuable for success in business, the front runners that emerged over the last year were the ability to problem solve, the ability to learn new skills and apply to them quickly, and adaptability. While technical skills like coding, project management, and data analysis will always be useful, skills related to continuous learning, growth, and adaptability were critical for teams to be able to thrive and continue to perform over the last year. These skills help people to be able to think creatively and flexibly under pressure–which there was plenty of opportunity for over the last year. Seeing the value in being able to look at situations from other perspectives in real-time cemented the importance of having mental agility for leaders and teams.
And while stress wasn’t something that only appeared once companies went remote, many people felt pressure and stress from their jobs in ways they never did before the pandemic. But instead of viewing stress as a negative force that requires energy to defeat or dispel, resilient teams who practice mental agility were able to use that stress and pressure to up their game, and in some cases have their best performances. Given how powerful mental agility proved to be as a tool for sustainable high-performance while managing the challenges of remote work, it goes without saying that leaders and teams who practice mental agility to adapt to new working environments or hybrid schedules will have the upper hand leading through the transition.
As employees shift back into the office full time or in a hybrid manner, problem-solving and mental agility skills will remain valuable assets for performance. Leaning into the culture of continual learning, upskilling, and growth that was required during remote working when employees transition back to the office can reinforce the value your team places on these skills and provides an opportunity to invest in employees. Companies can provide opportunities for learning and career development in the form of performance coaching or other leadership development programs to reinforce the importance of the skills used for sustainable high-performance and mental agility.
See the opportunity
While identifying the challenges and stumbling blocks that will undoubtedly present themselves as we transition back to commuting into the office won’t be difficult, reframing them as opportunities for growth and development can be a bit harder to do. One way to make this easier to do is to find ways to make the transition smoother for others. Whether you are a team leader or an individual contributor, anyone can bring joy into the conversation. Checking in with your teammates about how they are doing, sharing stories, and making a point to create moments of lightheartedness as everyone does their best to shift gears once again may seem like a small act, but can have a big impact. This is especially important with hybrid schedules or teams that will have some members who may remain working from home. Small gestures of inclusion and kindness go a long way.
Using the transition as an opportunity to notice and point out the positives can help to rebuild the in-office culture and smooth the transition that might naturally feel a little awkward as many teammates have not been in the same room with one another in over a year. Practicing optimism conditioning is also important for sustaining high-performance as times of transition often go hand-in-hand with adjustments to workflow, project management, and scheduling. Just as there were wrinkles to be ironed out when moving from being in the office to working from home, there will be some of that on the reverse transition. Being able to recover and bounce back from setbacks or unexpected challenges will ultimately result in increased productivity because your team won’t be completely sidelined when things don’t work out exactly as planned.
We can’t expect the transition back to working in the office after a year of working remotely to be challenge-free. But we can rely on the skills we honed to support ourselves and our teams during those work-from-home months. The tools of emotional flexibility, mental agility, and optimism conditioning that helped during adjusting to working remotely will help teams smooth the transition and continue to grow no matter what bumps, challenges, and opportunities may lie ahead.