Back in the office for the first time and I realised that the transition from home of office working is not a trivial change. It felt exciting, unsettling, and disorientating and that was just the commute!  And working so close to other people will take some getting used to.  In this third Unlocking Leadership blog, we look at how leaders can help themselves and their people navigate this change, and we address a question that we first posed over a year ago – What do I say – in those early face to face meetings? We have already suggested that how you look as you return to the office can signal change, indicating that the future will be different from pre-lockdown working but also learning from the experience of virtual working. What leaders say, how they say it and who they address will also be powerful signals of change. And those first meetings and speeches will be picked over closely. After so many months of working through a screen, face to face communication may have greater impact than you might expect. So, this is a particular moment for leaders to take care about what you say when you speak to your immediate team and wider organisation.

As people return to the workplace, there will be benefits, stressors, and challenges. These will be different for each individual and for each leader. Each person may have reflected on their own lives in lockdown, and this may have sparked thoughts about changing priorities in careers and in personal lives, leading to a re-evaluation of their role and their way of working. Others may feel resistant to the very idea of returning to the office and working closely with colleagues once again. No one will be perfectly clear about how they will react or what the future will bring for their organisation or for themselves. There is a temptation for leaders to want to have a plan to ‘fix’ the situation and to clearly map the way forward. But clarity will take some time and so authentic leaders will sit with ‘not knowing’, as an early crucial step in the unlocking progresses.

Clearly it is important for leaders to learn about the experience of their staff and their organisation. What has been the impact of lockdown and the pandemic, how have things changed? And to do this, leaders need to listen without prejudice, asking questions and being prepared to be surprised at the answers they hear. This may take a little time, but questions and self-disclosure will demonstrate honest, authentic leadership, and to provide the time for the path ahead to emerge.

If you want to signal the changes ahead, take time and think carefully before you speak.

  • What have your learned? If you have engaged in proper listening to your people, your colleagues, and stakeholders, you will have identified new information and insights that will inform your thinking about the future. So, consider more questioning / exploration, and fewer definitive statements in your early communication.
  • Choose your words with care. You may have ruminated and rehearsed your messaging to others in your head when working from home. In fact, this process may convince you that the messages have already been delivered! But face to face communication is high impact – much higher than over a screen, so select your language carefully to ensure that it delivers your messaging accurately and cannot be misinterpreted.
  • Check understanding. Over lockdown, relationships will have changed and some will have been weakened by the extended separation. This may mean that you cannot reliably predict how your words will be received. Don’t assume understanding, rehearse your early messages with a trusted colleague and get some feedback on what they heard. This will allow you to check that you early messaging in particular is received as you expect.

Unlocking will be hard for many and complex for most. The messages leaders communicate in the early days of lockdown will have lasting impact – for good or ill! Our next blog post will focus on the approach to team leadership that you may want to demonstrate as your staff return to the office. We’ll explore the leadership habits to continue or protect  from your virtual working over the last 12 months and the opportunities provided by the unlocking process to evolve your style of team leadership and empower your people in new ways.