An emotionally stretched, radically altered, and positively demanding workforce is on the menu for many businesses in the remainder of 2020.

Preparing for our own re-entry, I can't help wondering whether businesses are as ready to unlock the lockdown as the media would lead us to believe. Amongst the leaders I have been talking to, there is a keen understanding of the new challenges they face, and that the decisions we make about "re-entry" need to be conscious, unrushed and right for our own particular circumstances.

As the COVID-19 'R rate' has dropped, and the easing of the lockdown in wider society is speeding up, it is worth considering that the journey 'back' could be more dangerous than the journey we have been on - it's illuminating that over 70% of people who perish on Everest do so on the way back down. My instinct is that the greatest economic and organisational risks to business lie ahead, albeit that so too do the greatest opportunities. If we take care on the descent, if we plan for re-entry, we are more likely to shepherd our organisations to a safe and sustainable 2021.

it is worth considering that the journey 'back' could be more dangerous than the journey we have been on - it's illuminating that over 70% of people who perish on Everest do so on the way back down.

Right now the mood music is very much about "returning", returning to offices, to public spaces, and increasingly to the best version of what we were before. The dominant tone is one of normalisation; to stress how little has changed (after all we're already habituated to distancing strips on shop floors, plastic till screens, entry sanitisers, and cashless transactions). But I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks this is not so much a return to normality, but a rather a re-entry into the unknown with new pressures and pinch-points.

this is a precious moment to reset and reboot our workplace cultures and practices, as we all absorb how successful the world's biggest ever home working experiment has been

Amidst the current rush to 'return', for many of us nothing is about to radically change and we should use that pause to plan for better execution. Some 40% of the pre-crisis workforce in the UK are still exclusively working from home, and very few of them are expecting to return to normal working patterns anytime soon. That resonates with the sentiment in my own business. Which suggests that this is a precious moment to reset and reboot our workplace cultures and practices, as we all absorb how successful the world's biggest ever home working experiment has been.

In a recent study of 1,000 UK workers who are currently working from home (who are either not normally allowed to work from home, or who do so no more than once per week on average), 68% feel they are either more productive or equally productive from home - which is particularly significant given the unique and real challenges many people face with handling childcare and home-schooling.

During this time most of these workers have rapidly been developing new and valuable skills: managing remote teams; meticulous task planning; using new collaborative tools; and the art of sharing documents on Zoom! Over three quarters (77%) of them feel that employers have done a good job handling the remote working transition, and that they believe their manager trusts them to be productive from home.

Clearly, many of these new norms of virtual working are positive. At Taylor Vinters we've seen an increase in our collaborative team working and problem solving. Meetings, whilst plentiful, seem more focused and better prepared for. Some of our clients report faster decision cycles as old rules or processes have been challenged and stripped away. Efficiency has become a personal priority as well as a business one. But on the other side of the street, there are also unanticipated downsides.

Whilst everything might look and feel the same, the people coming back to their workplaces will have been very much changed by the experiences of the past 4 months

Judging from our informal client feedback, the curse of days overscheduled with meetings hasn't diminished, and there is evidence that the emotional pressure of being 'always on' and 'visible' in meetings is tough, as we naturally want to present an engaged and professional image to colleagues and friends. Indeed, one of the key dynamics of virtual working is that it doesn't make us 'disappear', but rather makes us more visible. In stark contrast, real offices are great places to 'hide' - behind processes, status, and hierarchy. In the new era of Zoom and Teams homeworking makes us, and our contributions, more visible, not less. It also strips away status and hierarchy (unless you've been actively curating your Zoom background to power signal your palatial home office environment). We can't 'unsee' the FD in their hoody on a bad hair day, and why would we want to if it's helped to make them seem more human and approachable than before.

I'm therefore surprised about the absence of any commentary on how impactful the collective 're-entry' to long established working patterns is going to be for employees and employers alike. Whilst everything might look and feel the same, the people coming back to their workplaces will have been very much changed by the experiences of the past 4 months. All the assumptions about employment being inherently good, routine being a stabilising influence and flexibility being a privilege might just have been turned on their heads. As leaders, have we really got ourselves in a position yet to identify the assumptions to be challenged, let alone challenge them?

I think it is absolutely vital that organisations actively talk about, and ideally plan, for the forces affecting their people as they re-enter the atmosphere, their workplace. Many leaders need to anticipate that they have a new workforce returning, however familiar they may appear to be, and leaders may well need to make meaningful changes in the way they get the best from their teams. I've personally learned some important lessons during my career that suggest the most 'dangerous' things are those that look familiar but which may be radically different.

Admittedly, the changes in our teams are unlikely to be as immediately debilitating as those for astronauts returning from space, as they experience changes to vision, balance, coordination, blood pressure, and the ability to walk, which impact their ability to perform basic tasks. Many also report fundamentally changed perspectives on life.

But the 're-entry' impacts on our teams may actually be more profound and longer lasting than these short term physical impacts affecting astronauts after their re-entry. Many colleagues will be returning with questions about their place in the organisation, and about what they do. They will be expecting the recent openness to new ways of working and innovation to continue. They may be questioning whether they want to return to 'business as usual', or to the trappings and customs of the old work culture. They may challenge whether the status symbols that a prime office location confers are worth the contorting effort it takes to be constantly present in that office. They may be actively reassessing their role and their working priorities, wondering whether their requests for a refocused role, or more flexible working patterns will be accommodated. They may also be asking why they can't just work in the office now that they can go down to the pub and get on a plane. Maybe that in itself is the reason.

For those not ready to flex in response to these re-entry forces impacting their workforce, they won't be able to capitalise on this precious moment to reset and innovate, whilst sustaining what they already value most about their culture.

And let's not forget that the evidence is accumulating that for some people their recent separation from colleagues; their less than ergonomically ideal home working environment; coupled with the psychological toll of living through a pandemic, has been harming their mental and physical health.

I believe that leadership is now really about behaviours, not belongings

What will it take to manage that re-entry process well, so that both our people, and our businesses, can grow and flourish as we continue to transition through the pandemic? At Taylor Vinters we're talking to our clients about how they are going to build back better, but we're already clear on some of our own non-negotiables.

Firstly, our workplace culture is at the top of our priority list. Many businesses have asserted during the pandemic that the wellbeing of their staff was their number one priority. That commitment cannot be the first casualty of re-entry. How businesses treat their people now, and the leadership mindsets that go with that, is really going to make a difference.

The importance of leadership behaviours and values has been laid bare during the pandemic, as the other trappings of leadership have been stripped away. I believe that leadership is now really about behaviours, not belongings. During the coming re-entry period we must be aware of the way in which we frame the organisation's conversations. Is the emphasis on 'a speedy return to routine'; on 'buckling up' and 'buckling down'; and on 'making up for lost time'? Or is the conversational hum about 'how can I support', and 'what have we learnt from this past six months?' Clearly high engagement and growth will come from the latter more supportive, open conversations. Unless our engagement and talent strategy is responsive to how people have changed, what they might now need, and how they can contribute afresh, we will not get the best out of our people.

Secondly, we must ensure that our inclusion strategy is a key driver of all our talent attraction and retention efforts. How have the differences and uniqueness of our workforce helped us respond to the pandemic? Whose voices have been more prominent? Whose voices have been harder to hear. How can we learn from those insights, celebrate them, and help build a truly unique employee base in our business?

I recently hosted a Zebra Talk conversation with Linbert Spencer OBE in which we discussed the impact of being home based on organisations who are prioritising inclusivity. Whilst it's true that new workstyles open up a world of possibility in terms of using technology to work inclusively and recruiting for roles unfettered by some of the traditional barriers to diversity, it's also true that it has become easier for those on the edges of day-to-day interactive home working to fall off the radar of organisations without careful and conscious attention. I do worry that many organisations are walking in to a new era of a complex and unequal workforce in terms of visibility, opportunity and influence. What is hard to call is whether it is the homebased or officebased workers that will be disadvantaged if we don't collectively get this right.

Finally, we want to be overtly talent conscious over the coming months. This embraces a range of elements. Do our work roles need redesigning post COVID-19? Have vital new tasks and responsibilities emerged suddenly, outdating existing role titles and definitions. It was already commonplace before the pandemic to talk about the need for businesses to focus much more on skills, and less on job roles. The pandemic has underscored that need, showing up which are the key skills really needed to drive an organisation's competitive advantage and business critical workflows. The ability to adapt and overcome has never been more valuable.

So it's vital to be discriminating about the people, skills, and capabilities we need to hit the ground running in recovery. At Taylor Vinters, we're also fascinated by whether COVID-19 is going to change organisations' 'build, borrow or buy' ratios when it comes to talent and skill acquisition. In recent years businesses have got much smarter about the skills they have to build internally, as opposed to those they can buy in, or borrow through external talent platforms.

What is certain either way is that organisations are going to have to get a lot better at cultivating communities of talent inside and outside of the company, tapping into the required skills in all its available forms. Now more than ever it seems vital to continue to invest in our people, so that everything they have recently learned about problem solving; or using digital collaboration tools; or from trusted clients; can now be deployed to positively affect how we work together to evolve our service and product offer.

So this is a moment of greatly heightened risk, and opportunity, for all organisations. If we adopt the right growth mindset in terms of talent strategy; create a strong people-first culture; and recognise that we need to plan for re-entry, then our chances of steering our organisations towards a safe and sustainable 2021 will be much higher.

Originally published here on Medium.

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