Succeeding in a COVID-Disrupted Work Environment

August 4, 2021 David Witt

A just-completed summer webinar series by The Ken Blanchard Companies® provided insight and guidance for leadership, learning, and talent development professionals. Topics covered included planning for a post-COVID work environment, what the remainder of 2021 might look like, and looking ahead to 2022. More than 2,000 HR / L&D professionals registered for one—or several—of the sessions Blanchard offered.

Such a large turnout isn’t surprising, considering 77% of the HR / L&D respondents polled in a separate survey reported moderate to major disruptions to their business environment because of COVID—and 44% described their business world as substantially to severely changed.

Below are some of the key points and action steps that were shared as a part of the series. You can check out all the related articles, blog posts, and webinar recordings at www.kenblanchard.com/hybrid.

It Begins with a Conversation

In a kick-off article for the series, “Don’t Call It Return-to-Work—Call It a Needed Conversation,” Britney Cole, associate vice president, solutions architecture and innovation strategy at The Ken Blanchard Companies, discussed how employers are struggling with the degree to which they should accommodate employee preference in the decision to return to the office. Just as important is the question of what employees can do when they are not aligned with their employer’s desires—and subsequent policies—about people returning to the office full time.

Cole’s recommendation? Navigate people’s anxiety, uncertainty, and preferences in a way that is a win-win for both employer and employee. Her three suggestions are:

  • Adopt a learning-focused mindset. Employees are going to have concerns about returning to the office. Leaders need to explore employee views and realize they may contrast with organization and leader views. Even though many employees are ready to return to the office, not all are.
  • Identify blind spots. Right now, organizations and leaders are making assumptions about what employees want. Some employees have strong feelings about continuing to work remotely rather than returning to the workplace five days a week. How might leaders partner with their employees to develop a plan that honors organizational policy as well as individual employee preferences?
  • Be curious. Leaders must genuinely ask employees what they want—and listen to the answer. When leaders are sincere and humbly inquisitive, employees are more apt to share and less likely to minimize their needs and feelings.

Cole encourages leaders to be transparent and straightforward about the direction of the organization and the strategy for returning to the office. Listen attentively to employee preferences and desires—consider it a temperature check of your team. Otherwise, all the productivity gains made through remote work could reverse and employees could look for new ways to do their best work—at a different organization.

People Are Returning to a Different Place

In a series of three June webinars, Scott Blanchard, president of The Ken Blanchard Companies, teamed up with Stan Slap, New York Times bestselling author and CEO of the global culture consulting company SLAP. Their message: Do it right, and this transformation can serve you and soar your business. Do it wrong, and it will stall you and stay with you.

As leaders put the finishing touches on strategies for bringing back their workforce, whether fully or in some new form, Blanchard and Slap recommend they examine and reignite their relationship with employee and manager cultures.

“People are returning to a different place—or are in a different place, post-COVID,” says Blanchard.

“The success of your return-to-work plan will be decided by your employee and manager cultures,” adds Slap. “If they want it to happen, it will happen. If they don’t, nothing will happen.”

“Securing the maximum commitment of your employee and manager cultures is the essential focus that will allow your company to return to full performance. You need resiliency, trust, focus, and urgency from your employee and manager cultures. Your cultures need certainty, belonging, energy, and purpose from you.”

Mind Shifts and Skill Sets

In an article for The Ken Blanchard Companies’ LeaderChat blog, senior consulting partner John Hester reminds leaders that hybrid teams are nothing new. What is different is the sheer volume of people who want to continue working from home, either full time or part time, due to the pandemic.

To be effective, Hester recommends a few key focus areas.

  • Make the implicit explicit. Leaders must express their expectations in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt; for example, the core hours everyone is expected to be available and the expected response times for chat and email.
  • Foster community. Pre-pandemic, remote team members were rarely seen on camera and virtual parties or happy hours were unheard of. Teams have learned to be creative in the way they have fun virtually. We need to learn from these experiences and continue making a priority out of connecting as a community.
  • Promote well-being. Well-being will continue to be an important issue in hybrid teams. Leaders must pay attention to their own well-being and promote activities that will encourage others to do the same.
  • Ensure hybrid meetings are effective and engaging. Far too many meetings are an ineffective use of time. Leaders must plan virtual meetings to be engaging—featuring team discussions, collaborations, and projects, not just information download.

Demonstrating Trust

In a July article and follow-up webinar, Blanchard vice president and trust practice leader Randy Conley shares that returning to the office provides an opportunity to demonstrate trust.

“Sending people home at the start of the pandemic turned into a great trust experiment,” says Conley. “Organizations were forced to extend trust to their people. There was no more physical monitoring. The norm of everyone showing up at the office at 9:00 a.m. was broken.

“The good news, by all accounts we've seen, is that the ‘experiment’ was a great success! Leaders and their teams found new ways to work and were amazed by both the increase in productivity and satisfaction with their life and work situation.”

So what do organizations do now? Continue to build in that direction—or collectively exhale that it went well, bring everyone back to the office, and return to the old ways?

Conley cautions leaders to avoid an old-school mentality that the office is where people need to be to do their work.

“It's dangerous to generalize around this topic. Leaders have a lot of sticky issues to work through. It’s important to take some time to think, be open, share information, and make decisions based on data—not on old-school mindsets or ideas.”

“If you have data points that support onsite collaboration and productivity, make sure your team understands them. Conversely, if your data supports remote work, share that. Have an open dialogue about it. Involve people in the change and the decision-making process.”

“During times like these, it’s important to build on the trust we extend to each other in how we get our work done. By setting clear expectations, involving everyone in the process, soliciting feedback, and staying flexible as leaders, we can better enjoy the progress we’ve made and will continue to make as we move into the future.”

Improve Communication

In one of the final webinars of the series, communications expert and bestselling business author Craig Weber shares the importance of everyone increasing their conversational capacity®, which he describes as “the ability to have constructive, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects, under challenging circumstances, and among people with diverse views.”

Weber explains that conversational capacity is about people learning how to be more candid and curious in their conversation style.

“Candor means speaking openly, honestly, and directly so people don’t have to wonder what others around the table are thinking about a decision or problem. Candor is best when it's balanced with curiosity, which means being open-minded, inquisitive, and eager to learn.

“When there's a difference of opinion around the table, instead of getting defensive, people with curiosity get interested: How are you looking at this? Tell me more about how you're making sense of the issue.”

Weber shares some specific advice for discussing the return to a hybrid work environment.

“From a conversational capacity viewpoint, someone who wants to work from home could start a conversation this way: ‘I've got a view that I'd like to spend more time working from my home office and less time here in the corporate office. Let me lay out why I think there are advantages to this for both you and me. And then let me check it with you because there may be situations where it may not work so well for the business. I'm open to influence here.’”

Weber explains that with high levels of candor and curiosity, people can outline their view, explain it in a clear, lucid way, and then check it and see what the employer thinks.

“Increased conversational capacity doesn't guarantee everyone gets everything they want. That’s not the goal. It means people can have rigorous, balanced, respectful conversations with the explicit goal of making the best possible decisions. The conversations are about learning, not agreement.”

High Involvement

The new world of work requires everyone to learn new skills, practice increased awareness, and maintain an open mindset. As Blanchard president Scott Blanchard shared, “Resetting and resecuring your relationship with your people is the first order of business. You've got to fill those tanks again. You need to renew the sense of belonging between the culture and the company and create the kind of emotional energy that produces faith, resilience, and urgency.”

Ready to build that type of environment in your organization? Explore the available resources for creating your success plan at www.kenblanchard.com/hybrid.  All the content is free—and shareable—courtesy of The Ken Blanchard Companies.

About the Author

David  Witt

David Witt is a Program Director for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.

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