In several parts of the world, particularly the United States, restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic are beginning to ease. Some organizations have already announced plans to return employees back to the office full-time. Many have hesitantly announced their intent to move to a hybrid arrangement, while most are still trying to gain clarity on their post-pandemic plans.
Regardless of where your organization falls on that spectrum, one thing is certain – This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for organizational leaders to build trust in significant and profound ways. The opposite is also true. If you handle this poorly, the erosion of trust you cause will haunt you for years to come.
Here are six strategies to help you develop, communicate, and implement a plan that results in building higher levels of trust with your employees:
- Challenge your assumptions – We’ve already seen leaders boldly proclaim their disdain for remote work and declare that people will be required to come back to the office as soon as possible. Those leaders are stuck in old ways of thinking. They still view work as a place you go rather than a thing you do. The transition to remote work during the pandemic has busted many of the myths that kept people tethered to the office. Over the last year of remote work we’ve seen productivity remain stable or even rise, people enjoy better work-life balance, and even an increase in collaboration by leveraging technology. Now is the time to challenge your assumptions about how work gets done in your organization.
- Base decisions on data. As much as possible, gather data to support your decision. Resist the urge to revert back to “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. If you’re going to require people to return to the office, have empirical data that supports that strategy. It’s not enough to simply claim that productivity, creativity, innovation, or team culture is better when people work in the office. Find ways to measure the impact. As W. Edwards Deming famously said, “We trust in God. All others bring data.”
- Involve employees in creating the plan. One of my favorite sayings is “People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.” It speaks to the idea of a high involvement change strategy. Get your team members involved in developing the plan. Seek their input and incorporate their feedback into the decision-making process. Their trust and faith in the plan will increase because they had a voice in shaping it.
- Address stages of concern. Our research shows people experience predictable and sequential stages of concern when faced with a change. Leaders improve the chance of success if they proactively address those concerns, rather than finding themselves on their heels having to react to resistant employees. The first stage is information concerns. Your people need to know what the change is and why it’s needed. The second stage is personal concerns. Team members want to know how the change will impact them individually. What’s in it for me? The third stage is implementation concerns. What do I do first? Second? Will the organization provide the necessary resources. It’s critical for leaders to address these stages of concerns to alleviate fear and anxiety so their team can embrace the change.
- Communicate openly and frequently. A recent report from McKinsey & Company states that 68% of employees say they’ve yet to hear about any vision from their organization about post-pandemic work plans, and if they have, what they’ve heard remains vague. In the lack of honest, open, and frequent communication, people make up their own version of the truth, a version which is often more negative than reality. Opening up communication will result in people feeling more included, less anxious, and more open to change.
- Go slow. No one wants to hear this piece of advice, but I’ll give it anyway. Go slow. Don’t be in a rush. Remember, we are just emerging from a major, life-altering, global pandemic. You likely have employees who experienced severe illness, lost a family member or colleague, or experienced some other form of trauma because of the pandemic. You literally transformed your business overnight by shifting to remote work. Is it going to hurt to gradually phase-in a return to the office plan? Probably not.
You may never have another opportunity of this magnitude to build trust with your employees. This is your chance to infuse your culture with empathy, compassion, and care. Think of the amount of trust and loyalty you can bank with your employees by handling this in a way that respects their mental and emotional states, involves them in the planning process, and by taking things slowly and sensitively. This is your chance. Please don’t blow it.
Randy Conley, Vice President of Professional Services and Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies, is the author of the Leading with Trust blog. His LeaderChat posts appear the fourth or last Thursday of every month. You can follow Randy on Twitter @RandyConley or connect with him on Linked-In.