In the second of our reflections on the leadership challenges of unlocking the economy, and steering teams through a phased return to a mix of office and home based working, we consider the unspoken signals you will send in your first face-to-face interactions with your team.  Do you want the way you look to signal a return to the way things were, a continuity with the new norms the team will have established whilst working for home, or something else?  

In April 2020 we started a series of blog posts reflecting on what effective leadership looked like in lockdown. Twelve months on, we want to explore what we are seeing as leaders work through the different challenges that unlocking will bring. We’ll address the questions we raised a year ago: how I look, what I say, how I lead a team, influence stakeholders, and measure performance as a leader, as each stage of the unlocking roadmap unfolds.

The first of these questions – ‘how do I look’ – appears simple. When people return to the office, do I reach into the wardrobe for the old office uniform, or continue with the more informal look that most people have relaxed into while working from home? But that begs the deeper question – does the old work suit really fit anymore, either physically or philosophically!? It’s interesting to think about the signals you are sending as you start to meet people in the office after months online – and of course to read the signals that your team are sending you in return.

Whilst we’ve all been meeting on-line we’ve become more informed about our colleagues and their life outside work by having a window into their home environment. Leaders also typically say they have shared a richer picture of themselves with their teams than ever before. So, as you think about how you are going to look as you start to meet face-to-face again you’ve got a choice. Do you want to signal: a return to the style of leadership and work relationships of 12 months ago; a continuation of the way you’ve been whilst working from home; or to point towards something that is neither of these, and signal change.

Choosing signals that suggest a return to the past could be read as losing some of the immediacy and authenticity you’ve built up while working from home. But continuing new on-line traditions, exemplified by WFH ‘lounge wear’, could also mean preserving the style and tone of screen-based meetings with all their limitations. For example, failing to tackle the emerging conflicts or strategic questions that people tell us have been so difficult to address while relying on Teams or Zoom.

For many people, the last 12 months will have had a profound impact on the way they see themselves and their future. We’ve all been touched by this pandemic, suffered losses large and small, and sometimes found surprising and rewarding new interests. People in your team may have resolved to make a change in career, or to balance work, home and personal responsibilities in a different way. And the impact of all this may be written in their faces, their new hairstyle, or the way they dress, before the find the words to tell colleagues out loud.

Making conscious choices about how you look is about how you want your team to see the experiences you’ve been through in lockdown reflected in your leadership priorities now and into the future. It’s generally accepted that more than 50% of the impact you make as a leader is down to body-language and other non-verbal forms of communication and so the first impressions you make in those initial meetings will be significant.

At Socia we don’t see a simple ‘return to normality’ – much of our business has moved successful on-line and we want to keep the greater flexibility of time and location that on-line meetings can provide. But we also know how much we’ve lost in the depth of conversations and the ability to hold a group’s focus on difficult questions – which is part of the value that leaders and their teams get when everyone is in the room together. So when we meet, we want to find thoughtful ways to signal what we’ve learned and how that has developed our approach – although we are not yet quite sure what that will mean in terms of sartorial style!

In our next blog post, we will focus on the second question ‘what do I say?’  and we’ll explore how leaders can start to talk about what may have been left unsaid over many months of online meetings.