The foundation of business renewal.

The rebuilding work must begin with our teams

Many of my clients and friends whose businesses have been running at half-speed or, in some cases, had largely shut down, are starting to move through their unlock plans. In general, the plans are going relatively well. It’s the people that are proving the biggest challenge.

Colleagues who’ve stayed in the business and worked through the last two months, are now visibly tired, some on the brink of burnout. Those who are looking at returning from furlough are audibly anxious, partly about the work environment and expectations, partly about the home situations they’re having to try and reorganise or manage to enable their return.

Some have seen an understandable them-and-us dynamic emerge between the two groups – their grass appears far greener from a distance. But this is also overlaid with a lingering anxiety, in the furloughed especially, that if business doesn’t bounce back quickly, they will be the first out of the door into what could be a quite horrible market for job-hunters.

These are the underappreciated psychological impacts of lockdown. For many people on furlough it’s felt like neither a holiday nor a sabbatical. Some have spent much of their energy keeping children educated and entertained; others in dealing with the impact of lost friends and relatives; and many more have struggled with the downward emotional spiral of purposelessness, isolation, and ennui.

For many who’ve been home-working, it’s not felt remotely like “working from home” either. It’s felt more like working under siege. Many of the habits and structures we’ve built up over the years to rekindle our energy and enthusiasm during the working day – the quiet commute to regather our thoughts, the banter between meetings to lighten the load, the drink after work with friends to unwind or blow off steam – have all but disappeared. And the resulting withdrawal, fractiousness, conflict avoidance, unexpected outbursts over seemingly nothing, are the visible results.

Short-term “acute” stress can have a hugely positive impact on performance. But many people in both groups will have been under increasing “chronic” stress for weeks now. And under chronic stress, our natural abilities to adapt and moderate our own unhelpful behaviours and personality traits becomes increasingly compromised. Without proactive support, individuals tend to revert to type, and teams tend to regress to “storming”, just when you need them to be performing at their best.

So, as you start your preparations for un-furloughing, you’ll need to carefully consider how you adapt expectations, prepare the ground, re-induct the furloughed, reintegrate the workplace and enable those who remained throughout to reset, de-stress and recharge.

Because here’s the thing: all of our recent experiences, just as all of our personalities, will be unique to us as individuals. Leaders will need to make the time and effort to navigate that complex landscape, to listen to and understand the stories and their impact, and to support each individual in a personalised and flexible way if they want to rapidly rebuild high-functioning teams.

A positive, energetic esprit de corps inside the workplace, will be the foundation stone upon which all our other efforts to springboard the business back into life, will stand or fall. How we bring the isolated and anxious back into the fold, give respite to the forgotten and frazzled, and breathe a renewed sense of unity, harmony and security into this so recently fragmented community, will define how quickly, powerfully and sustainably we re-emerge over the coming months.

In any competition, it is the strongest team that wins. And many of your team will be living with a host of invisible scars, frustrations, and very real fears as you try to rebuild. We need to prepare for that personal rebuilding role while we can, because we underestimate its importance at our peril.