Lockdown ending? Time to prepare your people to come back to work

Lockdown ending? Time to prepare your people to come back to work

People will die and it will affect the people who work for you. Some will lose family members and loved ones. Employees may succumb to the coronavirus. Customers and suppliers may simply vanish. This will have an emotional impact on your teams and you need to prepare for it.

In the normal run of events, you will bring the team together and support them as they work through their grief. Being together and able to have the informal chats and moments of reflection is part of the healing process. Those of us working from home, furloughed or self-isolating are denied this. We can’t accidentally bump into a colleague and share how we’re feeling. We have to schedule video calls or hope someone doesn’t mind us calling them out of the blue.

Isolation during lockdown is stressful

Nor can we go through the usual rituals that help us recover. Even something as simple as arranging a collection to buy flowers for a funeral is problematic.

As your business awakens from enforced hibernation, your teams will face these deaths together for the first time. There will be anger, denial and accusations. Some will accuse you of not having done enough quickly enough. They may even accuse you of being complicit in deaths because you didn’t close fast enough, or you put “profit over lives”.

This is natural.

Teams do not suddenly go back to normal after a crisis

I’ve been in teams where members have died suddenly. The sudden loss of a colleague is heart wrenching at the best of times. There’s an empty desk we can’t help but focus on. A dynamic in the team that’s missing. I’ve come back from holiday to discover a friend had died and been buried while I was enjoying myself. My teammates were recovering just as I was thrown into the start of the grieving process.

A team member was killed in a horrific car accident. The owner took the attitude “grief isn’t appropriate for the workplace”, even refusing a close colleague’s request to attend the funeral. Without support, the team quickly directed the anger in their grief towards the owner and performance suffered. Within 6 months most of the staff had moved on to other companies, often taking customers and contacts with them.

As a business owner or manager, there is additional pressure on you. Not only do you have to deal with your feelings of grief, your teams will look to you for leadership. You must find the right balance between emotional support and bringing the business back to life. The administration of the business will have to resume, and while teammates are working through their grief, you must find replacement staff, re-engage with customers and suppliers, and starting rebuilding lost revenue.

Preparing to the return to work

There are no experts on returning to work after a global pandemic. There is no rule book you can slavishly follow. You’re in new territory dealing with people, and we are a funny lot. Some of us might brush this off like water off a duck’s back. Others may descend into deep depressions. A few will seem perfectly fine right until the point something triggers a complete breakdown.

One of the biggest challenges we face is work is seen as a place where grief isn’t appropriate. Talking about a lost colleague is often relegated to “outside working hours” discussions, and we can feel uncomfortable when the discussions start. I’ve dealt with managers whose attitude to team members grieving family deaths is to expect their performance to remain the same. This attitude usually leads to a breakdown in trust and the employee’s mental wellbeing.

Given the enormity of what’s happened, giving staff permission to feel grief and discuss their feelings will be helpful. Not every manager and team leader will be comfortable with this, and if they don’t feel able to take on the role of a confidant, it must not be seen as a failure on their part. It may be sensible to seek organisations and networks that can provide support, and offer this to staff as an independent, specialist service they can access as and when they need it.

Your workforce might be different

Awakening the business and expecting it to go back to “normal” from day one is potentially unrealistic. You will need a plan to bring people in and breathe new life into the old shell. Changes will be required to cover for deceased staff, or those who are still isolated. Relationships and friendships may need to be reestablished after weeks apart. There will be stories and memories to share.

Plan to give teams time to reform. Launching into fun “team building” exercises might be inappropriate, but a briefing on what people can expect emotionally and as support from the business may be. So too might be a lighter work schedule to give people a chance to reconnect. While there may have been regular video and phone conference calls, the informal, irregular exchanges that happen when people are together physically will have been missed. These need a chance to normalise.

If there have been deaths amongst the workforce, you will want to remember these lost souls. The funeral may be long passed, but gathering together or having a collection can be ways of helping grief along. You may also want to consider changing the layout of the workplace to help grieving colleagues.

After a colleague died at their desk, several colleagues had difficulty working in the same office. They saw the empty desk as a reminder of the deceased and the events that surrounded their death. After a couple of weeks their manager moved them to a new office and encouraged them to take part in the move rather than leave it to Facilities. The process of clearing out and starting a new space helped them draw a line under events and start as a new team.

Finally, do not be an island. As a business owner or manager you will have the weight of everyone else’s grief pressing down on your shoulders. Make sure you are looking after your own mental health and wellbeing and give yourself time to grieve. You are human too.

Last words of encouragement

Returning to work after the coronavirus lock down will not be as easy as opening the doors and welcoming everyone back. You will need to deal with some quite difficult emotional responses that risk running out of control and causing untold damage. Without proper support, staff may direct their anger in unhealthy and unproductive ways. However, if you plan your return carefully, and acknowledge and support people’s grief, you stand a much better chance of your business settling into a new normal more easily.

About Ross A Hall

A business researcher and writer, I help companies find new markets, form strategies and build successful businesses.

Find out more about my work.

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