Many analogies for leaders planning a major change use the image of crossing a river. They talk of building a bridge; starting with pathfinders feeling their way on stepping-stones, before raising bridge supports on solid foundations to carry the weight of the organisation safely to the other side. But as we embark on week 8 of leadership in lockdown the traditional ‘bridge to the future’ analogy doesn’t quite fit. There are many rivers to cross before we reach anything like a post covid-19 world. Perhaps most difficult of all, no-one is really sure just where we are all starting from nor where the next staging post in this journey lies.

Problem focused planning and emotion focused planning

There is work going on up and down all the nations of UK this week figuring out possible practical solutions to get workplaces operating once again, whilst minimising the risk of virus transmission. But as we discussed in last week’s note about coping strategies – just focusing on the physical practicalities is not enough to get a smooth and sustainable transition for a team. Leaders need to balance the attention they give directing problem solving, with what it will feel like emotionally for different team members to make a staged return to the workplace.

Every situation will be different, but we’ve distilled 4 tips from the conversations we’ve been having with leaders about transition planning in the past few days

  1. Understand where all the team is starting from. It’s tempting for leaders to focus on the future – and to lead with a ‘this is where we are going – follow me’ approach. But right now, there is great merit in listening to your team and gathering data about how each one of them is really feeling today. By listening to their hopes, fears and frustrations you can develop a picture of which next steps will be possible and, most importantly, what changes are likely to be sustainable.
  2. Plan for a hybrid future. Even in a workplace where it is physically possible to get all the workforce to do their work safely, individual circumstances will mean that some people cannot travel to work, or even leave home. Inevitably this means a mix of home-based and site-based working across your teams. To make this successful probably requires a reassessment of the processes you put in place when lockdown started, and a hybrid mix of these ‘new ways of working’ with re-starting some original, critical processes that can only be carried out in the workplace.
  3. Think about how your leadership focus might change – and how this will feel to your team. As the CEO or team leader you may be very keen to get straight back to catching up on all the activities that you’ve been unable to cover sufficiently under lockdown. Typically, this could mean a focus on customers, or other stakeholders that have been difficult to engage remotely. But paradoxically this could mean that just as you get back into the office you become more absent from your own team physically and emotionally.
  4. Recognise that all transitions are stressful – even those you’ve been waiting for! The pressure to ‘escape’ from lockdown has been growing in the press over recent days. But 8 weeks of lockdown is a long time. New habits will have been established, and new fears crystallised in all of us, so don’t expect plans for any sort of staged ‘re-opening’ to feel normal, or to be universally welcomed. Again, listening to your team now and encouraging broader discussions about what people expect to see, do and feel, in the next few phases will help everyone to respond to their colleagues’ different perspectives, to test their own expectations, and to prepare for whatever realities start to emerge.