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As the return-to-work era unfolds, many leaders find themselves mired in challenges. They are tired. Their people are tired. And there is still a lot of resistance. How to bring people back and create cohesive, productive, engaged teams?

It’s not an easy task.

With a tremendous amount of pain and loss in the last two years, people are still carrying a weighty burden. I’m hearing from many that there’s tremendous overload, underappreciation and a sense of being close to (or in) burnout. This is true for leaders and the broader employee base.

Françoise Mathieu, executive director of Kingston, Ont.-based Tend Academy, which provides consulting and training to high-stress workers in fields such as health care, shelters and child welfare systems, spoke similarly of these issues at her organization’s recent CARE4YOU conference for helping professionals. In highlighting the psychological trauma of the past two years, she noted many people are still emotionally burdened from the fallout of overload, chronic exhaustion and complex workplace turmoil. And we haven’t yet processed it all.

There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen. Whether – or when – the pandemic ends we have work to do. Easing back to in-person work won’t be a straight line from what we were used to. Leaders will need to be attuned to their people and create climates where people can come to work without leaving their very human needs and experiences at home.

Earlier this year, I wrote a few predictions and hopes related to the landscape of work and leadership. As organizations transform their way of ‘being’ together whether in person and/or virtually, it will be increasingly important to connect more fully on human levels. Leaders and workplaces must make it safe for all to be human and sometimes vulnerable, and support resilience and flourishing.

This can happen. One conversation at a time.

Prioritize connection: While celebratory lunches and gatherings are nice, it’s the smaller moves that will have significant impact. The conversations that connect, relate and tune into others will be increasingly crucial.

One client who manages a large team that is being phased back to the office said, “there are people in my department whom I have never even met in person since the pandemic started. Leading a new department, new hires – this will be the first time we truly connect face to face.”

“Taking time to connect as people and learning that ‘Joe’ has kids your age or his son also loves baseball like my son makes a world of difference to our working relationship and the overall energy of being at work,” the client said.

While efficiency and productivity still matter, the era of efficiency at all costs is over. “We must prioritize connection even if we lose a bit of time. We will gain more trust which will pay off in the longer term.”

Care and empathy: How are you? What can I do as a leader to support you? More than nicety, a leader needs to check in with their people as humans. A leader doesn’t have to fix things, especially when they can’t. But asking and listening with genuine care can make a substantial difference. Sounds obvious but asking someone how their dad is doing knowing they fell ill is important. I heard of one example when a manager bypassed this and got straight into project status discussions. Not coincidentally, this employee started to get curious about work opportunities elsewhere.

Team connection: After two years of isolation, employees often find it heartening to connect with peers on shared experiences. One of my leader clients, brought her team together and invited people to share how they were feeling in the early days of the return. There were no judgments or expectations. This leader shared some of her own experiences including her initial trepidations. This authenticity further opened a sense of trust and that we are all human sharing a pivotal moment in time. People said they felt a lot of relief knowing others felt the same way. Humans connecting as humans first.

Acknowledge and thank: The pandemic and current landscape is asking a lot more from people. People will work harder when they are appreciated. There are many ways to do so and if ever there was a time, this is it.

Flex where you can: Some of the return-to-work policies come from upper management. Still, mid-level managers have room for flex. The same client said even if an employee was slated to work on certain days, he flexes if they need an exception. “People have families and personal needs. We must stay sensitive to that.”

Humanity at work calls for courage, authenticity, and generosity: Conversations that connect, care, support, have the power to engage, and cultivate greater capacity in people and teams. All of this calls for resilient, people-centric leadership. Make sure your own bucket is filled so you can stretch, grow and be there for others too.

Eileen Chadnick PCC, of Big Cheese Coaching, works with leaders (emerging to experienced), and organizations, on navigating, leading and flourishing in times of flux, opportunity and challenge. She is the author of Ease, Manage Overwhelm in Times of Crazy Busy.

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