How to Lead in the “New Normal”

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As the economy and offices slowly reopen, it’s important for business leaders to keep an open mind and embrace uncertainty.

As you are likely finding out, there’s nothing at all normal about the “new normal.” 

Economies are reopening. Restaurants, hair salons and retailers are serving a limited number of customers, and consumers are starting to spend more money. Sporting events, concerts and other large gatherings remain on hold. Masks and social distancing look to be part of public life for the near future. 

For employees returning to the workplace in the coming weeks, the new normal may seem uncomfortable and ambiguous. What restrictions and practices will companies put into place to ensure workers’ safety? How will upper management respond to an uptick in coronavirus cases or an unexpected shift in customer demand? Will office life require plastic sheets, unplugged coffee makers and one-person elevator rides, as described in this recent Wall Street Journal article?   

As a business leader, it’s your job to address and allay your employees’ fears during this new and uncertain phase in the COVID-19 pandemic. Some leaders will want to respond with proactive measures and decisive actions. However, the return to workplace life in many parts of the world will require a more flexible, nuanced approach.

Tim Cowden, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council (KCADC), leads an organization that represents more than 300 companies. In his thrice-weekly Zoom meetings with area CEOs, he’s found that many of them are striking a balance between positioning their businesses for “re-entry” while also being sensitive to workers’ concerns. 

“I’m very reinforced by a lot of what I hear. There’s so much empathetic leadership being displayed across the region,” Cowden said.

New normal, next normal — whatever you choose to call it, it’s going to be different. Here are four leadership practices to keep in mind as your team returns, slowly, to the office:

Listen intently 

Listening to others is a vital leadership skill, especially in times of crisis. While the return to the workplace might seem to signal that the worst of the pandemic is over, don’t be fooled. Difficult days may lie ahead for you and your workforce. 

Having a knowledgeable leadership team that pitches ideas and provides honest feedback can help you craft a thoughtful, comprehensive action plan as your business returns to work. History has shown that, in times of uncertainty, leaders who are collaborative, inquisitive and good listeners (think Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administrative mastery during World War II) fare much better than leaders who take charge but face adversity alone (like the brilliant but autocratic Gen. Douglas MacArthur, for example).

“The biggest mistake a leader can make is isolating themselves,” Cowden said. “You have to reach out. You have to stay close to your executive team, you have to confide in them and look to them for direction, too. You have to extract as much energy and as many ideas as you can.”

As New York Times bestselling author and organizational culture expert Ori Brafman points out, listening and valuing employees’ concerns is also crucial to leading an effective transition. 

“It’s about constantly giving people a voice and reminding ourselves that a company’s culture is a shared responsibility,” he said. “Ask your people, ‘what is your anxiety level about returning to the office? How can we empower you?’ Then listen to what they have to say. Be mindful that everyone has a stake in how your company moves forward.” 

Communicate effectively 

Once you and your leadership team have devised a plan of action for returning to the workplace, it’s time to share that plan with your employees. 

Keep in mind that effective communication isn’t measured by quantity. While empathy and attentiveness are important, oversharing your thought process in all-employee meetings or through a 2 a.m. company-wide email can do more harm than good. Build a solid plan first, then bring it to your workforce.

Jessica Palm, vice president for talent at the KCADC, and John Murphy, co-chair of the regional business community-led initiative KC Rising, recently went through that process during the heart of the pandemic. Over a whirlwind seven business days at the end of April, the pair, along with leaders of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City and the Mid-America Regional Council, collected information from employers and government agencies to produce #SafeReturnKC. The comprehensive 19-page document serves as a guide for businesses to use for responsible re-entry into the workplace. Published April 29 on ThinkKC.com, the guide has been translated into Spanish and Vietnamese, downloaded hundreds of times and touted as a key resource by the governor of New Jersey and civic leaders in Houston.

#SafeReturnKC recommends a phased-in approach to office re-entry, covering everything from infection contact tracing to how to safely put on and remove a surgical mask. One key theme of the document, Murphy noted, is that “things that used to be back-of-the-house in an office have become front-of-the-house. 

“Things like hygiene and cleaning,” he said.”Now it’s extremely important that employees see it on a daily basis or a frequent basis several times a day. Suddenly, coming into an office and smelling Lysol and bleach is a good thing.” 

Palm methodically crafted an accurate, easy-to-read document about a complex, elusive, fast-moving challenge for employers. Some of the information was collected from a Zoom call involving more than 700 business leaders. She expects to update the guide frequently as events around the coronavirus continue to change. 

“It’s a living document, so it’s going to continue to evolve,” she said.  

Resist ultimatums 

Government restrictions on social gatherings will force many companies to take a multi-phased approach to workplace re-entry. Some companies will start by splitting their headcounts into teams that alternate office hours on different days. Others may only require “essential” employees to return to their desks for the time being. 

Murphy of KC Rising mentioned one multinational company that launched a four-phase return to the office on June 1, with the most at-risk employees not returning until the final phase. Like many other organizations, the company has emphasized that no employee has to return until he or she feels ready. 

“Even among the most enthusiastic, there’s still going to be a tinge of fear about coming back,” Murphy said. “And a lot of employers are being sensitive to that.”

That gradual approach is probably a good thing as companies feel their way back to a more “normal” way of operating. Because the shutdown has affected different people in different ways, implementing a rigid, one-size-fits-all plan for returning to work could create problems. Some employees may be ready to come back to the office, while others may be terrified. Some employees’ lives may be complicated by children and school closures, while others may fall into one or more of the at-risk categories identified by the Centers for Disease Control.  

Now is not a good time to draw a line in the sand about policies and procedures. Cowden believes that Twitter’s recent pronouncement that it would let some employees work from home “forever” might have been premature. 

“These companies that are saying we’re going to go all-remote, I think that’s a mistake,” he said. 

Brafman believes organizations will need to do some deep thinking about how employees can most effectively work together. While Zoom and other applications have enabled teams to communicate, they are not as effective as face-to-face interaction.

“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a real substitute to that for the kind of information we get from each other to the ability to have serendipity and really build trust,” he said. “As human beings, we’re social animals, and I don’t know if we’ve fully explored the implications of a virtual working environment.”

Look beyond your organization  

All leaders can benefit from having a network of peers with whom they can share ideas and opinions. That’s particularly important at a time when all companies are grappling with similar challenges.

Outside perspective always helps. During a recent Thursday afternoon Zoom meeting, Cowden brought in new Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny to speak with the KCADC’s 25 employees about how he’s leading his team through the pandemic. Ballplayers have unusually strong “B.S. meters,” Matheny told the group. They know when they’re being handed a line, so it’s best to open up and be transparent with them.  

“That was a surprise to our team, but I wanted them to have something that was a different message and a different deliverer of that message,” Cowden said. “I wanted to make sure we’re switching up and keeping things fresh.”

Paying close attention to other outside sources like the news media, and local government and health officials is also imperative at this time. Regardless of your plans and ambitions for your business in the coming months, they must be rooted in reality and safe practices.

“It’s hard to argue with science,” Brafman said. “So recognize that some things are just science and let’s listen to the experts on this.” 

In conclusion 

No one knows exactly what the next few months will bring as the global economy gets back on its feet. As a leader, the best way to approach this uncertainty will be to remain flexible, continue to collect information from internal and outside sources, and also look for opportunities in the face of crisis. 

Brafman notes that the Black Plague of the 1300s ultimately ushered in the Renaissance. What ideas and innovations might emerge from the 2020 pandemic and how can your organization be at the cutting edge of those changes?

“In times like this that seem more chaotic, the tendency is to try to exert a level of order. But when you look historically, times of chaos have brought in some really interesting things. They shook up the model,” Brafman said. “If we look at this together in a constructive way, we may find how we can all be most effective.”