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How can company leaders best manage a return to the workplace?

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The Framing Designer Leticia Bartelle Lorenzoni researchers Social Security services on the internet in her house after she lose her job in a Framming Art Gallery that is was closed in Venice beach during the COVID-19 novel coronavirus in Los Angeles, California on April 01, 2020.

As companies consider how best to return to ask employees to return to in-person or hybrid work environments, Constance Dierickx says the key to success includes "connection." Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images

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With businesses trying to navigate how and when to get employees back on company property, the timeline and approach for a return have varied. But when a company does decide it’s time to move employees back to the workplace — either partially or fully — how can leaders best navigate the change?

Constance Dierickx, author of “High-Stakes Leadership,” says it all begins with connection. Dierickx, who also works with boards and senior executives in tough situations, spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio about how leaders can best address this workplace transition.

David Brancaccio: Now, I’ve talked to business owners who really want their vaccinated staff to start coming back into company property, for instance, a firm that’s involved in design. And this boss I was talking to believes that human interactions are crucial to creativity, yet a good part of his staff has health concerns, commuting concerns, all sorts of concerns, and many just don’t want to come back in. What is a grown-up way for this person to approach this thorny issue?

Constance Dierickx: Well, the one-word answer to that is to start with “connection,” to really know your people, to know who your employees are as human beings, and to not think that you can just issue a blanket order, “OK, everyone back in the office.” Because we’ve all been through a common experience, but we haven’t been through it in the same way. The second thing is to not dichotomize location, but to recognize that you can connect remotely or you can connect in person and to ask yourself, “What are the tasks? And what are the things we need to do, where being together is quite essential? And how do I make that as safe as possible?” And go from there.

Brancaccio: Maybe what you’re calling for is, alright, when do you really think that the person-to-person interactions are the most valuable? And are there limited situations where that firm could still host those in a safe way? Instead of just saying the only way to get those is to order everybody back to the office.

Dierickx: Yeah, I think that one of the great reasons to have people come together in-person is to have a common experience that they can’t have on Zoom. Let’s say, for example, you’re in a design firm. We’ll take your example. And what you want is innovation. Who doesn’t want innovation? All leaders are screaming for innovation. And you say, “I’m going to take everybody to a museum to see different paintings or to see a new artist.” You know, you could safely do that by having people wear masks, for example. I would be really hard-pressed to tell you that you could replicate that through technology. I mean, I guess you can have someone walk around with their video camera. But we begin to see that there are limits to the technology.

Making connection doesn’t necessarily mean another Zoom meeting

Brancaccio: Leaders of organizations are also fighting burnout. I mean, in themselves, but also their people have been knocking themselves out to keep the business together under tough conditions. And they can’t just keep doing it forever. I mean, I know they’re getting a paycheck, but it’s extremely hard. And that is a leadership issue.

Dierickx: Yes, and the leadership issue is not just about those other people. It’s about the leader themselves, you know, how are they doing? But what leaders can do is they can notice changes in behavior. So they can see maybe that someone is extremely fatigued or they’re withdrawn. Because in burnout, we do tend to — it’s actually called “depersonalization,” so we tend to back off. And you see people not feeling a sense of accomplishment in what they’re doing. The biggest thing that leaders can do, is to make sure that they are connecting to people and that people are connecting to each other. So the leader doesn’t have to be the hub of the wheel, where all the spokes come to the leader and the leader’s got to connect with, you know, too many people. The leader can do things like say, “You know, David, I noticed that you and Erika are particularly good at doing this thing together. How about you go work on this thing?” Because connection is not only preventative for burnout, but it’s highly curative. It’s the simplest answer that I can give to leaders to help with burnout.

Brancaccio: That’s interesting about making connection, because that’s what falls through the cracks here. I mean, no one wants another Zoom meeting. So you make your Zoom meetings very businesslike and on task, and there’s not room for the, “Hey, talk to me about how you’re really doing,” or “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve done in the past two weeks if anything?” There’s less time for that when you don’t see people.

Dierickx: Well, right. That’s the story is that well, we’re not having the water-cooler conversations anymore. We’re not popping into one another’s offices. But a leader who has the intention to create connection with the leader and amongst the group can bake that in by going through their list of tasks and as they do it, say to people — this sounds so simple, but it’s hard to do when you’re being very sort of goal-driven — to say, “You know, this is the plan we had, Carol. What are your thoughts about this?” and engage people deliberately. But also then to say, you know, “I was thinking about you and you had expressed an interest in learning more about, I don’t know, some technology. Have you found a course maybe you could find a course?” You make these conversations more public on a Zoom call, and you’re sending the message to everyone, even the people you’re not speaking to, that I really care about your growth, your professional growth and you as a human being. And it doesn’t take a lot of time to do that. It takes intentionality.

People need more than ‘I told you so’

Brancaccio: In many fields, new employees are hard to find. That gives employees leverage in these negotiations about their working conditions moving forward, doesn’t it?

Dierickx: Yes, yes, it does. Now, all jobs, though, obviously don’t lend themselves to remote. But for the rest of us, we can do so many things remotely. Again, it’s about can you connect with people and give them something beyond the paycheck. So people work for money, of course. But that turns out not to be the only driver or sometimes even the most important driver. People need a check, a paycheck to meet their physical needs. And they need a psychological check. So they need to have more reasons, than just, you know, “I told you so.” So, if somebody is reluctant, what are the reasons you can give them that will mean something to them to come into the office? Maybe you start with a day a week or two days a week or something like that. The other thing is that sometimes we’re so focused on the issue of who’s reticent that we forget about the people that are ready to come back and really focusing and leveraging them. And one of the best ways to find new good people is to ask the great people you already have who they know.

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