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17 May. 2021 | Comments (0)

More than a year into the pandemic, hope is finally on the horizon, with nearly half of the United States population having received at least one vaccine dose. And while this has prompted conversations about the “new normal,” many workers remain skeptical and worried.

In January, my company, The Conference Board, conducted a survey and found that nearly 1 in 5 workers were undecided about whether or not they planned to get the vaccine. We also found that about 60% of U.S. workers have expressed discomfort with returning to the workplace. This discomfort, especially when combined with continued economic and social upheaval, can create a climate of deep anxiety.

While many of the challenges lie outside a leader’s purview, there are steps you can take to better prepare your team for the future and keep your most important resource — your people — feeling safe, engaged and focused.

1. Maintain an open dialogue.

The last year was one of unprecedented uncertainty and even with progress, numerous questions remain. The survey revealed that a large number of employees have no sense of their organization’s timeline or plan for returning to the workplace or what their company’s vaccination policy is.

To limit insecurity and confusion, companies and managers need to be transparent about their plans and expectations. Convey new guidelines and safety protocols to ensure a safe and smooth transition back to the workplace. Prepare employees for reentry, especially about behaviors that will have an impact on coworker safety.

Even if you don’t have all the answers, communication is key. Letting employees know that there will be no last-minute surprises can be important. Reassure them you will provide ample time to plan for a return to the office and that their safety concerns will be considered.

To address these concerns, however, you must find out what they are. In September, we asked companies if they were polling employees about their comfort returning to the office and many were not. Those that did were more likely to implement the safety measures that actually addressed their employees’ top concerns: taking public transportation, work-from-home policies and childcare. Asking for input and responding appropriately builds trust and eases anxiety.

As public trust of institutions declines, most people still have confidence in the organization for which they work (paywall), providing an invaluable opportunity for businesses to serve as a source of truth and comfort for their workers, especially regarding vaccine fears. To ease these worries, companies and managers can provide evolving data around the efficacy and safety of the vaccine and enable government plans to immunize their workers. This can significantly reduce distractions and allow employees to focus on their performance.

2. Take a holistic approach to employee well-being.

We’ve asked our teams to be productive against a backdrop of personal safety concerns, financial struggles, food insecurity, grief, loss and a wide variety of other issues. No one has been spared; many of us are irrevocably changed.

As we return to the office, we need to think about our people as whole beings. This means incorporating physical, mental, social, financial and emotional aspects of well-being into the employee experience. When you understand your teams’ struggles, you can take steps to actively support their well-being, engagement and productivity.

Build and strengthen personal relationships with team members; listen and cultivate meaningful interactions. Understand the specific demands employees are facing, such as child and elder care; their health and well-being or that of their families; economic concerns; and mental health issues. It’s important to know your people well enough to recognize when they are struggling and have the relationship to have a conversation that matters.

Offering flexible work arrangements, highlighting available organizational resources and offering suggestions on balancing the workload can be welcomed gifts. Mental well-being should be a priority given that 59% of workers reported it was one of their top wellness concerns at work. The good news is our research also found that an overwhelming majority of these workers feel their supervisor genuinely cares about their well-being and that more than 60% are comfortable talking about challenges.

3. Model calm and resilient behavior.

To better serve your people, you must also recognize the toll the pandemic has taken on you. Leaders have been asked to step up in extreme conditions that are difficult, stressful and uncertain — all against the backdrop of what may be going on in their personal lives. You need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others; here’s how:

Make sure to put your well-being first and have your own wellness routine. Self-awareness is also key. For many, the prolonged and multifaceted crises that have enveloped us this last year have made anxiety our automatic response to stress. Take a step back and acknowledge the ways that you may be affected by your thoughts and emotions. Recognizing your own fears and anxieties in high-stress situations will help you better understand and relate to your employees’ experiences. Learning not to activate your stress response and regulating your emotions will help you make clear decisions and strengthen relationships with employees in these turbulent times.

Mastering these behaviors and encouraging them in others will not only benefit you and your team but allow you to better prepare for the future. More than ever before, agility and resilience are necessary skills, allowing businesses and individuals to quickly pivot focus and adapt in stressful times. Developing focus, pragmatic optimism and empathy will help build resilience against future adversity while remaining grounded provides a calm and stable foundation on which your employees can rely — an important factor in creating agility.

This won’t be our last disruptive event. We need to learn these lessons so that we are ready for the “next normal.” Supporting and reassuring your employees will keep them engaged and focused; the leaders and organizations that do the best job of this will win the coming war for talent.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

  • About the Author:Rebecca L. Ray, PhD

    Rebecca L. Ray, PhD

    Rebecca Ray is the Executive Vice President, Human Capital, at The Conference Board. She leads the US Human Capital Center and is responsible for member engagement and retention as well as the overall…

    Full Bio | More from Rebecca L. Ray, PhD

     

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