Learning & Development, Talent

A Guide for Leaders: How to Engage Employees Returning to the Workplace

It goes without saying that employees are the foundation of a successful business. As organizations continue to navigate how to function in a post-pandemic world, leaders will need to rethink their short-term goals of keeping employees productive, engaged, and healthy, as well as long-term goals that build trust and a sense of purpose.

returning
Soucre: fatmawati achmad zaenuri / Shutterstock

Organizations must now tackle their return-to-office approach in a way that makes employees feel that this decision is based on their best interests; this is where trust and purpose come into play. So how do we get there?

Create a Culture of Transparency

When our new reality has us continually adapting, remaining flexible, and being ready for the unexpected, cultivating a culture of increased transparency creates a strong foundation for businesses to build resiliency while keeping organizations agile and moving forward. How? Communication and accessibility.

No matter your communication platform of choice, make the focus of engagement the well-being of employees, not work. Communication needs to be constant and candid, even if answers aren’t readily available. By communicating this to your employees, you are actively engaging in open dialogue, building much-needed trust to face the road ahead together. 

This approach goes well beyond communicating with direct reports; it is imperative for leaders to engage employees on every level. The “trickle-down” communication style, relying on others to vocalize your direct message, is a mistake. Companywide engagement reinforces the message above—that the health and security of employees are your top priorities.

Going hand in hand with communication is being accessible to all employees. Being available amid constant change settles nerves and provides a more stable work environment. Consider having regular group check-ins through videoconferencing, allowing you the opportunity to reinforce key messages; visually connect with each other; and, most importantly, listen.

Tackle Fear

American writer H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” As we all know, fear touches every part of our lives right now, and the workplace is no different. In these unsettling times, employees fear everything from jeopardizing their health, layoffs, revised job responsibilities, and reorganizations. Our role as leaders is to mitigate that fear.

First, acknowledge it. One of the most harmful behavioral characteristics a leader can display is impassivity. Rather than projecting a “back to business as normal” approach and believing that will evoke calm, share with employees that you understand their concerns and that you yourself can relate. Be empathic and listen. When employees are heard, they feel respected and become more loyal to the organization, helping to quell fears. 

Once concerns are recognized, communicate with employees what is known and what can be controlled. For example, focus on business attributes such as the company’s vision, mission, and core values. If you can, connect these dots to the state of the business and what‘s happening in the world. Reminders of stability help negate fear of the unknown—identify and focus on those elements, and share them regularly.

Be Positive

The primary role of a leader is to inspire. In fact, research shows “that humans tend to copy the behavior of others, particularly of those in positions of authority.” When you can, celebrate victories, large and small, and encourage sharing of inspiring news across the organization, such as customer wins, employees demonstrating company values, or successes working remotely. The past 6 months have been undoubtedly challenging, but your employees most likely adapted and excelled, so commend them for that!

To close, allow yourself to take a step back for a moment. Remember the weeks, months, and years before COVID-19 took over our lives. Now, review the traits above: Create a culture of transparency, tackle fear, and be positive. These cornerstones have always been the mark of a true leader. Now is the time to emphasize them, rearrange your priorities, and put them at the top of your to-do list.

Tim Dowd is CEO of Accurate Background and serves on the Accurate board of directors. Dowd is a GE-trained executive with over 30 years of experience leading global information and technology-enabled service organizations. He has a proven ability to build and lead teams to deliver superior results at leading public and private corporations. He has been serving as president and COO of Accurate and was a member of Accurate’s board before joining the company.

Before this role, Dowd served as CEO of Current Analysis and INPUT and president of USIS, as well as in executive leadership roles at both Choicepoint and GE. He has also served on the boards of Escreen, Lubricating Specialties Corp, and Accurate. He holds an MBA from Emory University, a BS in Industrial Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and a BA in Economics from Assumption College.