Fear and anxiety is completely natural with a changing environment. As humans, it’s no secret that we love routine and on an organizational level it would be naïve to think that there won’t be stress involved with returning to the workplace for some. It’s our duty to address that – of course, it depends on the individual, but I believe by involving everyone there is an opportunity for all.
It starts with conversation between the organization and its people and that really shouldn’t be underestimated. If we know that people are going to be experiencing fear and anxiety then we must understand how we can get as close as possible to the experiences of those people – it’s shining a light on the situation if you like. As leaders we have accountability and from the off we need to be thinking about what messages we can communicate to people so they feel supported. It’s about developing a mutual understanding towards fear and anxiety and helping everyone realize that they are not in it alone.
I always think it’s important for leaders to ask themselves ‘what do my people need’? It’s so easy to get consumed by fear, and that extends to individuals at all levels of business, but we simply must make getting to the proximity as to how people are getting on a priority. It may take more time with some than others to fully understand how they’re getting on and it is of course a changing landscape, but I think by firstly meeting people where they are we can champion strong intentions and connection from the outset.
That’s where the power of conversation starts and it’s where we have an opportunity to get ahead of the problem. It can be simple too, and sometimes just takes a reality check - if the only time you get together is to talk about how to survive as a company you are missing out on the bigger problem. So, by all means encourage your people to take 15 minute walks twice a day, reduce meeting times down so people have an opportunity to chat simply as human beings, and implement simple ‘temperature checks’ once a week just to see how people are getting on. There’s definitely ownership on both sides, but we must actively engage in understanding what’s going to help us reduce stress levels and feelings of fear. Conversation is one thing, but we must follow through with it, consistently and into the future.
We need to be asking our people questions about their lives and what’s going on with them. It’s having that open line of communication with regular check-ins, and understanding what that continued conversation and those questions look like. By creating meaningful connections with others on an individual level, it’s more likely this attitude will penetrate through on an organizational level. You want your people to know that you truly understand how they feel so they feel supported.
A big part of the latter lies in embracing the idea of active/deep listening. It tells your people ‘I see you, I understand, I’m here for you’. Achieving that acknowledgement should not be underestimated as I feel it promotes the fact that vulnerability is OK. A lot of leaders understand it conceptually, but it’s about getting past concept into experience. By being thoughtful in the questions we ask, and the way in which we listen, we can fully understand the feedback we are getting from our people and it will allow us to go a few layers deeper in understanding. Visual cues are important too - ultimately, we want to make our people feel safe.
When we get to that point of open dialogue and acknowledgement, I would argue resource is key in helping individuals to manage their stress levels and deal with fear. This could be meditation audio/video, simply providing 360-degree transparency as to safety protocols that have been implemented, or through initiatives such as walking meetings. With the latter, for me it’s really about changing it up and thinking about how we can lighten up the experiences of our people. If you’ve been sitting at your desk all day in fear, a walking meeting could prove the catalyst to help get out of your head, even if it’s just to walk around the building. People are craving connection right now, and by regularly providing opportunities for conversation it will help our people find small communities of like-minded people – mini support networks within if you like.
I think on an individual level, leaders have an even greater opportunity than ever before to lead by example too. By demonstrating things you are doing right now to be a leader not only to your people but to human kind generally speaking, your people will feel more motivated and inspired to embrace a changing environment as one where there is opportunity. Bring your people closer to your experience - whether that be a picture of your healthy breakfast or insight into your wellness routine – it gives your people the incentive to shout about their wellness routines, to feel good and share their experiences.
Lastly, I think it’s important just to recognise that re-building an organizational culture where fear and anxiety are addressed effectively doesn’t happen overnight, and we should never look at the topic as one that has a start or end point. I do however believe we must do all in our power to get as close as possible to individual experience, to give our people the platform to start conversation and to express themselves. Attitudinal surveys can be highly effective towards tackling a new environment, as they act as conversation starters where individuals feel safe enough to express themselves fully. They provide access for those more emotionally hard to reach, and for some where now is a time when it’s hard to put language to fears and emotions, we must make sure no one is left to suffer in silence.
By giving 360-degree sight of the anonymized results of these type of surveys on an organizational level, it will communicate that vulnerable individuals are not alone and can feel safe in reaching out to others. It’s that holding up of a mirror that says, ‘I see you, I know what you need, here you go’. By being accountable, visible and involving our people into the future we can ensure that returning to office environments doesn’t come at the cost of emotional wellbeing.