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  • Writer's pictureAmii Barnard-Bahn

Returning to the Office — How to Navigate with Grace

Just as many of us have settled into our pandemic routines, change is upon us again as most organizations contemplate a return to work (or hybrid, or not) around September.

All of my clients are working through how they’re going to manage a post-pandemic work environment. That includes a balancing act of what is good for employees and what is critical for the business.

Here are my guiding principles of leadership that you can leverage in order to manage this shift with your work culture, team and organization, and be prepared for whatever challenge may come your way.

1. Balance empathy with boundaries

Early on in the pandemic, an executive I was coaching had a direct report who was diagnosed with early-stage cancer. Their company was not going to cover cancer treatments and this appalled my client. He fought for his team member to get coverage, and he got it.

Once the employee was back at work (and in remission) for several months it was time for performance conversations. My client was understandably conflicted about how to have a fair and tough performance conversation with him as his team member had never been a top performer when in good health.

He had been avoiding the difficult conversation because he empathized with his colleague’s situation. But he also knew from his boss and the sales metrics that this team member’s reputation and future with the company was at risk long-term, and that avoiding the conversation was a poor leadership option that could lead to worse consequences.

Together, we mapped out talking points to support a candid and caring conversation. My client successfully balanced his empathy with setting boundaries, and thereafter things fell into line. In fact, his employee appreciated the feedback and acknowledged the difficult situation his boss was in.

People want to know how they are doing. They want to be held to a standard. Give them the performance feedback they need, with support and care, and amazing results will happen.

So many people have lived through tragedies and continue to go through difficulties during this time. Some people did fine with Shelter in Place; others did not. If you don’t know already, find out how each of your team members are doing. Make sure you host one-on-one meetings with each of your employees before you return to work. Ask about any challenges they may encounter as they return to the office such as child care logistics, healthcare concerns, elder care issues, or anything else that can impact day to day work life balance. You don’t need to make promises or agree to arrangements at this time — just listen.

Once you’ve spoken to everyone on your team, find out your organization’s guidance on these issues so you can fairly and consistently respond to any requests, such as working from home on a part-time or permanent basis.

The goal here is no surprises on either side. Be fair, be transparent, be consistent. When discussing a potential plan, relate everything back to the work to be done and together, map out a plan. Don’t avoid discussing this. Employees need your support and they need expectations to be super clear. They need to trust you as well to be able to be candid about the bumpers they are navigating around. Together, if you’re both dedicated, you can find a way to get the work done as well as meet personal needs.

2. Balance authenticity with heroism

During the pandemic work from home model, we all experienced a surprise or two — whether it was your toughest employee breaking down in tears under personal pressure, a board meeting punctuated by your children busting in to ask what’s for dinner, or your boss mailing a handwritten note of thanks and strength to every member of your team. There have been so many moments of grace, grief, sacrifice and even unexpected humor and kindness over the past year.

Most of the leaders I work with found that the pandemic gave them permission to be real, to be vulnerable and less perfect. Leadership is a responsibility and can be a burden, so this was an unexpected silver lining. Now that many are returning to work, leaders will have an opportunity to integrate the more vulnerable side with their pre-pandemic leadership style. Vulnerability can lead to authenticity which is a powerful thing and shown in the right amount, can inspire trust and bonding with your team like nothing else can.

There is a line that can be crossed however, when as one of my executives put it, you come across as a “hot mess”. When a leader “lets it all hang out,” oversharing personal information or becoming overly informal regarding company stability, for example, people panic. No one looks up to a hot mess. Like it or not, as a leader you’re expected to have many of the answers, and let’s face it, we like our heroes. They give us inspiration and strength to go beyond what we think is possible.

So, as you return to the office, find your balance of authenticity and heroism as a leader. Perhaps more authentic than you were pre-pandemic, showing more about your family, your personal life, sharing past failures and lessons learned — but also be aware of the responsibility of being a leader and setting the tone by example.

3. Balance YOU.

You’re going to go through some shifts as well. You may not be in total alignment with everything your organization is doing. That’s ok. Be aware of how you are feeling and take care of yourself. Cultivate a safe zone of colleagues outside of work that you respect as advisors to share, support each other and discuss obstacles.

Think of the things that changed over the pandemic that you noticed as positive changes; did you find joy in cooking more, going for lunchtime walks? Whatever positive changes you incorporated, find a way to hang on to those. Maintain a work-life balance. Now is a great time to bolster your professional self and find additional support. In the same way you get a trainer for your physical health and conditioning, you can hire a coach, engage your mentor, or join a new professional network to get the support you need to lead.


I recently interviewed my colleague Minh Hoang Merchant, General Counsel at Genomic Health, regarding their return to work strategy, the first in a three-part series. Catch her tips for the transition in the full article here.

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