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With the surge of vaccinations, a return to normal life is blossoming on the horizon. Leaders everywhere are planning next steps for how and when their employees return to work. While many are yearning to return to “normal,” the reality is that this past year has changed us, both personally and professionally. We have experienced unprecedented fear and loss, we have moved through multiple cycles of change, and we have innovated like never before. Savvy leaders will intentionally build upon where we are now to craft a new and better way of working.
Here are three strategies that can help rebuild connection and trust in your organization.
1. Actively address the strain of burnout
This past year has taken its toll on people, both physically and emotionally. In addition to dealing with grief (one in three Americans has lost a loved one to the disease), people are experiencing record levels of burnout. One recent study found that nearly 70 percent of employees are experiencing burnout. According to Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski, coauthors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, people with burnout experience a decrease in their sense of accomplishment even when they are doing well, which eventually creates a decline in productivity and engagement. Sufferers of burnout also experience a depletion in their capacity for empathy and compassion.
Before your employees can lean into reuniting, they need time off to rest and recharge. Over the past year, fear of layoffs caused people to work more than ever. People not only forewent their usual vacation time, they also worked longer hours each day and into the weekends. A recent survey found that 40 percent of white-collar professionals have considered leaving their jobs since the global health crisis started. Without a commute to demarcate the boundary between work and personal life, the balance became heavily skewed. Working parents have been especially challenged and continue to feel the strain of school closures.
Organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich states, “For organizations, it isn’t just a moral imperative to combat burnout — there’s a financial one too. Health-care costs associated with burnout in the U.S. approached $200 billion, and that was before the pandemic.”
In the coming months, people are going to need energy and focus. But unfortunately, many are experiencing a kind of brain fog. Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg states, “When people are under a long period of chronic, unpredictable stress, they develop behavioral anhedonia,” meaning the loss of the ability to take pleasure in their activities. “And so they get lethargic, and they show a lack of interest — and obviously that plays a huge role in productivity.”
Successful leaders are addressing this by giving employees extra vacation time and even paying people a bonus to take it. Other leaders are announcing unexpected company-wide days off or closing for extended weekends or over holiday breaks. Others are investing in wellness programs and mental health services. What matters most is that you recognize that burnout is a critical problem and you actively start addressing it in productive ways.
Related: How to Deal With Employee Burnout
2. Empower the science of connection and belonging
Humans are a tribal species and a sense of belonging is crucial for our well-being. This, too, has been strained by the global health crisis, creating a rise in depression, anxiety and suicide. There are many ways we form and maintain bonds with others, all of which are rooted in our biology. Several brain structures are dedicated to reading different zones of the face to help us accurately read emotions. Our brain also scans for body language, and we even detect information about each other and our relationships through invisible pheromones and brain waves.
These methods are either strained or absent on video calls. Our features are compressed from 3-D to a flat, one-inch headshot. Our eyes see beyond the screen, confirming that we are in our own homes and not truly sitting with our colleagues. As a result, we have to work harder neurologically to communicate online, creating “zoom fatigue” and a sense of disconnection. According to the Hybrid Workplace Report, 77 percent of workers say they suffer from decreased productivity due to video conferencing, with 27 percent stating it occurs “often or always” during an average week. In addition, 40 percent stated that the lack of human connection/coworker interaction was “very or extremely challenging.”
While we are biologically wired to work in groups, there are conditions that must be met. We need to have a sense of safety with each other, something that is challenging when a health crisis causes us to view every person as a potential source of deadly illness. We also need a clear sense of purpose for working together and a sense of true belonging in the group. While that sense might have been strong initially, it has been impacted by the sheer distance we have from each other and our workplaces.
Interpersonal interactions are the connective tissue that helps people build rapport and trust with each other. Gone are those 10 minutes of chatting as you make coffee or wait for the elevator. Those casual interactions serve two critical purposes: the opportunity to connect about more personal things (“What did you do this weekend?”) as well as the opening to talk about work issues (“Hey, I want to run an idea past you”) that don’t fit within the agendas of regular meetings.
Leaders need to help people rebuild that sense of authentic connection and trust in their colleagues. Some leaders have already launched these efforts, using Slack channels with names like “the watercooler.” Other leaders are building connection time into regular team meetings, sending people off to virtual breakout rooms to connect before the official agenda launches or hosting virtual coffee breaks and happy hours. Innovative leaders are using asynchronous short video tools such as Voodle to give teams that boost of connection and creativity in a way that works for today’s distributed workforce.
Consider how you can create something similar that matches the culture and context of your organization. Just be mindful of timing. If you launch programs before you have addressed burnout, people might feel pressure to participate when they don’t have the physical or emotional bandwidth to do so effectively.
3. Plan to re-onboard your new hires (and possibly everyone) to rebuild connection, trust and organizational culture
Onboarding to a new organization or a team is stressful, but it’s especially challenging when everyone is working from home. New hires are denied access to the daily interactions that create the culture of a workplace — the little things like the office layout, the wall art depicting the mission and values, and the unspoken norms that show up in unexpected ways. Instead, they are immersed in the norms and culture of their own home shadowed by the memories of the last organization they worked for.
According to the 2021 Hybrid Workplace Report, 54 percent felt that company culture had suffered in the past year and that it’s difficult to create and maintain authentic relationships when working remotely.
Your new employees have also been stripped of many of the biological cues that help them accurately read the intent of their peers and supervisor. Research shows that psychological safety and trust are the hallmarks of high-performing teams. Both are built through small interactions with each other over time, as we tune in to the alignment between people’s words, actions, and cues their body sends. We certainly gain this information during work meetings, but we gain even more during those spontaneous conversations as we learn about our values, families, likes and dislikes, all of which are crucial data for building and maintaining trust.
At this time, new hires need some special attention. Assigning a peer mentor to a new employee consistently drives good results, yielding higher levels of engagement and retention. Today, a mentor can also play a critical role in bridging the gaps that new hires experience in these unusual times. Managers can also make a difference by meeting more frequently with new hires as well as investing in those informal opportunities for connection listed above.
In addition, leaders need to plan for a second onboarding event when it’s safe to be together again. Otherwise, this past year’s cohort of employees will create an invisible force in the organization, unconsciously passing on slightly skewed norms and expectations as they move up in roles and responsibilities.
By hosting a re-onboarding event, you can create meaningful engagement as you build the next new normal together. In fact, it might be a great way to engage the entire organization in celebrating all that we have survived and marking a new beginning as we build back better.
While we are all feeling the strain of this past year, the good news is that we are a resilient species. We will find our way through and emerge on the other side stronger than before. The efforts you make right now will determine whether your people emerge disconnected and disengaged or stronger and more connected than ever before.