3 Ways Leaders Can Ease the Return to Work

leadership May 04, 2021
ease return

           How has the last 14+ months affected your employees?  As the workforce slowly returns to normal, leaders need to deeply reflect on this question.  Your answers are the difference makers for your employees and company culture.

           While COVID-19 dominated 2020 and the beginning of 2021, the nation also saw social justice issues marching to the forefront, weather disasters, an insurrection on The People’s House, and a new Administration in the White House.

How the Pandemic Impacts Your Team

            What is the impact on your team?  Leaders must recognize that every employee’s experience has been different, and employee attitudes will vary about returning to work. Some will be excited to get out of the house. Some will be nervous and unsure as they return to the physical workplace.  Still, others might be worried about kids who still are not back in school. And unfortunately, some of your team members may have dealt with the loss of a loved one.

Despite all the differences, we all have one thing in common: the world around us has changed. Furthermore, we were unable to “stand around the water cooler” and discuss these important issues. People returning to work may have a backlog of unexpressed emotions, concerns, confusion, and fears.

            As we all recover from uncertainty, more than ever is it important for leaders to help their employees re-enter the workplace.

Know Your People

            As I mentioned, every employee will return to work with a different attitude. Leaders must understand where their team members are mentally and emotionally.  Leaders must connect authentically with each team member. Sit down and ask about your employee’s experiences and thoughts about returning to work. Authentic, transparent…maybe even vulnerable communication is critical for leaders to better gauge how to support team members. This conversation should not just occur once.  Smoothing the return to work requires consistent engagement by leaders. One-on-ones, surveys, brown bag lunches, social outings, and other activities help reconnect teams. This helps leaders know if something changes in an employee’s personal life. 

Knowing your people will allow you to better manage a person’s requests. For example, if one employee needs to telework one day a week due to childcare, the leader can make arrangements for others to work in the office that day. By knowing your people, you will be able to manage more effectively and allow the team to become more efficient. 

Meaningful Engagement

            This goes hand in hand with know your people. You cannot know them without meaningful engagement. (Check out my blog 3 Tips to Rally Your Team in Stressful Times). You must communicate, communicate, communicate. There is no such thing as too much communication. However, communication must be a two-way street. Here are a couple of pointers.

  1. Listen more than you talk. Ask questions that spark reflection and openness. Listen and listen deeply to what your team member says.
  2. Find out where your team’s head is at: How are they feeling about COVID and returning to work? What concerns do they have? What challenges are they navigating? What support do they need?
  3. What do they think about the social justice issues? What actions do they want to see your company take to create equity at work?
  4. Do your team members feel safe at work? Do they feel heard, respected, and treated equitably at work?

A huge part of a leader’s job is to demonstrate empathy and understanding.  Team members will appreciate your meaningful engagement and prompt, thoughtful action.

Building trust is key. Leaders show the way by transparently sharing their experiences. It is perfectly fine to share your own thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Employees want to know you’re human and when they see your willingness to share, it shows your vulnerability and creates a greater environment of trust.

Create a New Normal

            One of the advantages the pandemic provides leaders is the ability to start “a new normal.” Reflect on the last year and think about what worked better for your business, what did not work, and apply those lessons learned to create a better work culture. Maybe you discovered some team members were more efficient while teleworking or fewer meetings created better quality work and more productivity. Take stock of all the good outcomes from the last year and use them to create a more resilient and functional staff.


            With so much stress and uncertainty, it is easy to forget to CELEBRATE!  Be sure to celebrate all the milestones you, your team, and your company achieved. Reward and recognize your employees who stepped up, achieved goals, and completed tasks despite the challenges. Remark on how the staff faced a global pandemic and came out stronger because of it.

However, a quick warning: make sure you know which of your employees might still be suffering. Be sensitive to any grief or social inequalities an employee might still be experiencing. This gets back to knowing your people and having meaningful engagements.

Build Community

For many leaders and teams, the world of work has radically changed. We all need the strength of community now more than ever. Consider the ways you and your team can build stronger bonds and connections. Think about how you can welcome back each of your employees and assist them in navigating the new normal. Use this as an opportunity to fine-tune your leadership skills and advance your company’s culture.

A leader may not know all the answers, but as long as they know their people, communicate, and display empathy, employees will respect the leader and will continue to work hard for their company.

Jenny DuFresne is the CEO, Leaders Transform. Our mission is to develop leaders who grow, inspire, and evolve people, culture, and impact. Our team supports executive and mid-level leaders with executive coaching, leader, team, and culture development in mid-market companies. Learn more at www.LeadersTransform.com

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