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August 2020
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TD Magazine

Back at Work

An intentional process that eases employees back into the office should focus on their motivational needs.

While some organizations have decided to remain in a work-from-home posture for the foreseeable future, it may not be practical for others. Further, many employees crave the stability, connection, and practical benefits of returning to thoughtful in-person operations. Recognizing the economic imperative of reopening, states and businesses have responded with phased plans. Employers have engaged building management, space planning, and facilities experts, determining with great precision new protocols, social flows, and tools to ensure the physical health and safety of those returning to the office.

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That is encouraging and should give employees who are ready for increased in-person interactions peace of mind that physical health and safety considerations will remain a top priority at the workplace despite continued uncertainty regarding the novel coronavirus. But what else can employers do to be successful as they plan for employees' return to the workplace? Now is the perfect time to keep in mind some general principles regarding human motivation.

Companies must judiciously execute workers' return to the office following this rapid and comprehensive disruptive event to ensure that everyone feels like they belong. Unlike the initial disruption, companies have had more time to ensure this process is intentional—planned and carried out thoughtfully with consideration of human motivations. To accomplish that, employers need to meet employee needs, acknowledge emotions, and engage cognition.

Meet human needs

Employees are human, and all humans have needs—the conditions necessary to maintain life and nurture growth and well-being. Workers' needs could be as core as hunger and thirst and as deep as feelings of competence and belonging. Such needs are crucial motivational elements, and business leaders shouldn't bring people back to the workplace without considering those needs.

From a basic physiological need perspective, returning to the workplace will have to feel physically safe for employees. Employers must go beyond figuring out a way to keep the pantry and coffee station stocked and germ free. In addition, managers should familiarize themselves with the deeper psychological human needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

In thinking about the return to the office, aside from health and safety, one of the biggest threats is diminished motivation. Why? The rapid move to working from home provided most employees with a greater degree of autonomy than they previously experienced. For several months, they have had an unprecedented opportunity to control their work environment and decide for themselves how, when, and under what conditions they will complete necessary tasks.

Managers need to consider how their team's return to the workplace may represent a loss of that newfound autonomy. Quite simply, it's difficult to take away what workers may perceive as a perk once they have experienced the value it brings to their lives. Therefore, rethink working conditions and practices that may be unintentionally controlling employees. Autonomy is crucial for motivation and productivity—the more autonomous an employee is, the more effort that person will put forward and the more productive her effort will be in terms of learning, performance, and achievement.

Continue prioritizing building your team members' competence so that you can be more comfortable with granting them greater autonomy. A guaranteed method to increase competence is providing meaningful feedback. I recognize how hard it is to grant greater autonomy to team members if you aren't convinced of their competence, but at the same time, if you are not taking the time to be specific in your feedback and connecting that feedback to learning, your direct reports won't be successfully competent or autonomous—or motivated.

Professionals yearn to be competent in their roles, which means that they need appropriate, objective, and specific feedback on what they are doing well and where they may need to improve. Providing feedback to intentionally build competence is highly motivating for employees, whereas feedback asserted as a means of control will not only decrease competence but also diminish workers' feelings of autonomy, ultimately killing motivation.

Another crucial human need that supervisors need to consider is relatedness, or connection. Some of your team members have significantly deepened connections with others while working from home: They forged deeper bonds with colleagues as they shared far more dimensions of their lives during video chats, including details about other family members, pets, and their home environments. Working from home made it easier for some employees to open up and share details about their lives, facilitating powerful connections and relatedness.

You may find it challenging to maintain such connections after all (or especially if only some) team members return to the workplace. Nonetheless, continue to intentionally build and maintain those connections, moving beyond learning details about your employees' personal lives to building lasting psychological safety.

Workers are incredibly motivated when they feel psychological safety, which is the ability to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career. Psychological safety ensures that employees feel safe to contribute, learn, and challenge the status quo without fear, while still feeling accepted and respected.

Acknowledge human emotions

Be open with your team about your emotions in response to the crisis and change, and check in regularly with your staff regarding their emotional states. Individual employees will vary considerably in their comfort with sharing their emotional experiences. They will need to believe that they won't be judged for their emotions and that sharing how they feel won't negatively affect the way others view them. Be intentional about building trust with your direct reports and encouraging trust building among your team members.

Also, familiarize yourself with basic emotions (fear, anger, sadness, disgust, joy) and understand (and therefore feel less judgmental about experiencing) cognitively complex emotions such as envy, gratitude, regret, disappointment, hope, empathy, and compassion. Research indicates that developing greater knowledge about the complexity of emotions fosters greater emotional intelligence.

Without a plan to ensure that employees can safely socially share their emotional experience, you may risk alienating them, prompting mistrust and disengagement and making them feel as though their experiences do not matter. Make a plan to empathetically create the right conditions and environment to encourage social sharing of these experiences.

Social sharing enables workers to unpack their emotional experience and organize their feelings. It also enables them to better regulate any negative or positive emotions they may have after returning to the office. In addition, social sharing leads to enhanced interpersonal relationships, bringing team members and leaders closer together. The process of understanding (talking through and discussing feelings and thoughts about the experience) builds a positive association between individuals and facilitates positive social connections as well.

If you don't think you are a skilled-enough listener (be honest with yourself about this), then consider engaging a professional facilitator or executive coach to support you and your team in this process. If handled well, social sharing can promote incredible connection between you and your staff. If ignored, team members may disengage and feel unmotivated—and may even seek opportunities elsewhere.

Engage employees to learn from the experience

You have a valuable opportunity to make the most of a challenging situation by ensuring that you and your staff—not to mention the organization itself—learn from this experience. Most people have had additional time to think during the past several months, and many have engaged in some significant reevaluation and reimagining of their work lives, priorities, purpose, and plans for the future.

Create space and safety for team members to share their cognitive experience. Determine what your employees thought about during the past several months, and use those details to inform organizational culture and future initiatives. Some questions to ask include:

  • How did this experience change your thinking?
  • What did you learn?
  • How has this experience affected your beliefs and expectations?
  • Has it affected your plans and goals, both personal and career? In what way?
  • What are the opportunities to work differently (to better serve clients or customers, work more efficiently or drive operational excellence, produce better financial results or reach organizational goals, or develop yourself and others professionally)?
  • What do you think the organization or team should stop or start doing as a result of this experience?

This learning provides a dual advantage to employers: It will help employees at all levels process their emotional experiences and enable the company to collect viewpoints that can have a significantly positive impact on the organizational culture (not to mention the value that the organization provides to its clients and customers).

Everyone has talked; now what?

As a crucial next step, employers should not only collect that data but treat it as highly valuable information that they are committed to using to shape internal and external decisions. For example, data on learning and how this experience affected employee beliefs and expectations can help an organization intelligently redesign meaningful and motivating engagement initiatives, telecommuting policies and procedures, and benefits programs and packages.

It may also help managers tailor feedback to ensure its effectiveness, updating conversations from a fixed performance mentality to a more powerful conversation focused on supporting direct reports' learning and growth. Similarly, companies may benefit from assessing how the data aligns with current organizational culture initiatives. Could those initiatives inform a culture update?

Information regarding personal and career goals may inform succession planning and provide employees greater opportunities to try new roles or take on greater responsibilities. Organizations may also be inspired by the data to rethink traditional promotion paths and assess whether the expectations (for example, performance metrics, competency models, and time in role) aligned with those paths are practical (that is, team members are motivated to prove themselves in this manner).

Employers can benefit from considering the feedback through an operational effectiveness lens: Are there some practices and policies that are no longer relevant, overly duplicative, or inefficient? Is there an over-reliance on in-person large-group meetings? What practices are necessary, compared to what has always been done?

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Finally, how could businesses use the information to launch new initiatives, create new products, or roll out new services that can benefit clients and customers? Companies may underestimate how valuable employees' perspectives are on new products, service lines, or ways of reaching their clients and customers, and a rapidly changed external environment is the perfect time to ensure that these voices are heard.

If business leaders wisely listen to and consider the wisdom within their own walls, they may be able to steer their organizations to an even better position than before the crisis and meet client and customer needs. Most importantly, leaders must demonstrate that they have taken the information, have seriously considered the feedback, and are willing to pursue even small elements as temporary pilot programs or prototypes. Doing so is crucial to ensure credibility; employees won't participate in conversations or share ideas if they believe (or past experience dictates) that their ideas won't really be considered.

Timing

It may be a bit tricky to determine the best timing for reentry initiatives, particularly as many employers may slowly phase their workers back into the workplace, create rotating schedules for different teams, and decide to continue with full-time telework for some individuals, roles, and teams.

While organizations want to ensure policies and procedures are in place to take care of any returning employee's immediate needs, institute a two-week adjustment period before engaging in deeper conversations. It is essential that workers feel supported but still autonomous and that they feel like they have time to get used to and mentally process their return to the office.

Hold off on deeper conversations regarding emotional and cognitive reactions to this change until the third or fourth week of employees' return—too soon and you haven't given team members time to adjust; too late and they may feel left out and that you aren't considering or appreciating their experience.

If workers return to the office in cohorts, maintain cohesion by keeping those cohorts intact during group discussions. After conducting the conversations, other intentional reentry practices (particularly those that build autonomy and competence) should be ongoing, with no particular endpoint.

Pay attention to indications that an employee needs to talk sooner, including missed deadlines; disengagement; absenteeism; or a marked change in personality, demeanor, or performance. It's crucial that you recognize that an employee may be struggling with the change, and avoid labeling the person without first engaging in a one-on-one conversation to gain a deeper understanding of what that employee is dealing with. Alternatively, if a direct report expresses a desire to emotionally or cognitively process the experience sooner than the two-week mark, consider accommodating that request.

The most important thing for managers to remember is that everyone is on a different part of the change curve, so maintain flexibility to ensure an intentional reentry process is as positive as possible for your staff and the organization. Early adopters may readjust quickly and be ready to share their perspectives sooner than others, or they may just want to get back to business. Those who struggle with change may want early support or want to get used to the new reality before sharing their perspectives. Keep such considerations in mind as you determine your timeline for these crucial reentry steps and decide whether you'll conduct conversations with your team as a group or in one-on-one dialogue.

Avoid the desire to treat everyone equally in the name of fairness. Some may require more support than others, and you may need to tailor your approach to ensure different needs are met.

A worthwhile return

Conducted thoughtfully, an intentional reentry process will ensure that organizations make the most of this experience, enabling individuals to return to a culturally healthy workplace with stronger connections to their colleagues and a desire to enthusiastically engage in activities aligned to their strengths and goals. It will also position companies to provide the most value for their clients and customers.

Employers must intentionally ensure that all workers feel as though they belong and that the organization is intent on learning from this experience. By thoughtfully planning and executing the reentry process—meeting staff needs, acknowledging emotions, and engaging cognition—companies may generate motivation, value, and powerful goodwill from employees, clients, and customers.

About the Author

Annemarie Spadafore has mastered the creation of powerful, resilient, and equitable leaders. As a Harvard-trained expert in organizational behavior, a Fulbright Scholar (PhD, political science), and ICF PCC, she transforms executives into actualized, inspired leaders who wield power to achieve results while engaging the best in others. With her sharp intellect and warm personal style, Dr. Spadafore has supported diverse audiences through deep individual and team coaching sessions and speaking engagements. She has provided executive coaching to 1000+ professionals, including C-level and senior executives, supporting their capacity to purposefully make strategic decisions to maximize results within complicated organizational systems and during times of monumental change.

Her coaching and public speaking practice supports executives in the Big 4 and other professional service and law firms; she also has significant experience in the financial services, defense and government contracting, media/advertising, technology, healthcare, higher education, and government sectors.

She speaks and presents widely on a variety of both business and soft skills topics, receiving excellent reviews. She develops and facilitates custom leadership programs, leads hybrid learning and coaching cohorts, and coordinates with organizations to set their management and professional development agendas. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/annemariespadafore.

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