In a recent coaching session with a leader, we discussed a time-sensitive dilemma she was facing: “I have an autoimmune disorder that I’ve managed to keep under control — and that I haven’t told my team about. I’m getting ready to re-open the office for my staff, but I know I can’t go in. How will that look?”
Days later, another leader shared this: “My parents live with us. My father isn’t healthy. If I go back to the office and expose myself to something that I bring home to him, I would be heartbroken. I can’t go back. But how do I tell my staff that I’m not going to be there in person, but I expect them to be there?”
In our work as coaches and consultants, we are hearing this challenge again and again for our leaders: What if returning to the office just isn’t a viable option for them? With many schools closed for in-person instruction, scores of people may not have someone to stay home with their children. Others might be taking care of elderly relatives, while some might be immunocompromised or taking care of family members with similar medical circumstances.
How can leaders ensure that their absence doesn’t lead to resentment, distrust or a lack of engagement among their teams?
Here are several things leaders can do to increase trust, drive productivity, build team cohesiveness and mitigate potential resentment.
Be open and transparent.
If you kept your personal life private before the pandemic, you may need to share more than you’re used to. If possible, let people know the circumstances that are driving your decision, such as a child care issue or an immunocompromised status. And while you do not have to disclose the nature of your medical condition or disability, you should check with your human resources department to ask about what protections may apply.
You should also let others know how long you imagine this will last (to the best of your ability to predict) and how often you’ll update them on your work-from-home status. Transparency and consistency in applying the same standards about who is expected to return to work and who isn’t to everyone across the organization is critical.
Ask for feedback and take it well.
Your absence from the office is both tangible (you’re not physically present) and symbolic (our leader is missing). Both of those can have an impact. Ask people up, down and across the organization for feedback about how your work-from-home situation is impacting them, practically and emotionally. Truly hear them, without defensiveness, and ask how you can make things easier for them. And if you’re really brave, ask people how your absence is benefitting them and the team. You may learn something eye-opening about the unintended impacts you have.
Maximize your work-from-home benefits.
While working from home has its challenges, there are also a multitude of benefits, including the elimination of commute time and fewer interruptions from well-meaning colleagues who just want to say “hi.” Those who work from home tend to work longer hours. A commute, however, can be depleting to many. Leverage some of these benefits, and offer to take some tasks off of your team members’ plates. For example, without a commute, you might have the bandwidth and patience to review a report, look at a budget with fresh eyes, make follow-up calls or refresh connections with dormant contacts, which you can then turn over to your team.
Dial-up your empathy.
For many, returning to work is anxiety-inducing — this is the time to press the gas and lead your team with heightened care and awareness. There are many ways to express empathy in the workplace, and never has there been a more opportune time. Consider having more check-in conversations, asking more “pulse questions” that measure how everyone is doing and hosting some virtual social gatherings.
Shine a spotlight on team members.
This is a great opportunity to take a promising team member under your wing to mentor them. Help them plan out their next professional steps and offer to work on projects or papers together. Amplify their successes by mentioning their name and ideas in senior-level meetings, nominating them for committees and awards, and shining a spotlight on their achievements on social media. You don’t need to be in the office to make someone else feel like the office rock star.
Returning to a shared office space is not feasible for many people due to reasons outside of their control, and when you’re the leader, this can be especially tricky. Finding creative solutions and being transparent with communication is key to overcoming the real (and perceived) hurdles.