Returning to the Office After Covid – Re-Connecting Meaningfully

Returning to the Office After Covid – Re-Connecting Meaningfully

By Seth R. Silver and Timothy M. Franz, 2022

Now that Covid rates have dropped dramatically, and local mandates are loosening, many organizations are bringing their employees back in-person to the office.  Some are bringing them back full-time; others are feeling their way into hybrid models with a day or two a week in-person.  Either way, it means lots of people who have spent most of the last two years working remotely are now re-connecting, in-person, in co-located spaces.  This may seem like no big adjustment, after all, it was how most of us worked before the pandemic.  However, in these last two years, many have experienced high levels of anxiety, isolation, alienation and the pervasive stress of working together, but apart, often at all hours of the day and night.  On the surface, it may seem like we can just pick up where we left off in March 2020.  But at a deeper level, many are feeling very uncomfortable being back, uncertain how this affects routines they developed over the past two years, and candidly, not that happy at the prospects of face-to-face work again.

So, what can organizations do to address this new anxiety, and foster re-connection and renewed cohesion among teammates who have not been in-person together for most ofthe last two years?

First, it requires a focus on support.  Managers must understand that in order for their teams to feel comfortable, and be fully engaged and productive, they mustfeel fully supported.

Here are a few quick practical suggestions to help this conversation happen and develop the related set of relationship ground-rules:

  1. Embrace a mindset of meaningful partnership.Leaders and team members must both have the mindset ofmeaningful partnership. This is not ordinary collaboration or teamwork. This is where both sides recognize that they are highly interdependent, their fates at work are tied together, they can only truly succeed if the other does as well, andhence their focus must be on fully supporting the other.  Both partners accept that they are equally accountable for the health and success of the working relationship. It is partnership at a level that is above and beyond, has real impact for both sides, and is based on deep connection, cohesion, coordination and collaboration.
  2. Develop a workplace covenant.Leaders and teams need to create workplace covenants. In brief, a workplace covenant is a practical relationship building process that equips any two parties who have an important work relationship to establish and continuously improve their partnership. By exchanging behavioral and attitudinal obligations and expectations, refining these into respective covenants of what each owes the other, both parties adjust to help the other feel supported and be successful. It should be noted that the word ‘covenant’ has no religious connotation here, but instead simply refers to vital behavioral promises that have obligatory weight.  Both partners agree to adhere to these covenants as a matter of personal and professional integrity.
  3. Review and use the covenants. Leaders and teams should then regularly reflect on their covenants, review them informally and formally, share them with new team members, discuss them during one-on-ones, and use them as a basis for providing routine praise and helpful feedback so that both the leader and team continue to feel supported and be successful.  In short, the covenants become the means by which the manager and team ensure that their working relationship stays positive, and even gets better over time. And when this happens, everyone will know clearly what is expected of them, and can be more consistently accountable to their partners.

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Seth R. Silver, Ed.D., is the principal of Silver Consulting, Inc., and has worked with hundreds of diverse clients on leadership, cultural change, employee engagement and workplace success. Dr. Silver was also an associate professor of Human Resource Development at St. John Fisher College.

Timothy M. Franz, Ph.D., is an Organizational Psychologist, Professor of Psychology, and interim Chair at St. John Fisher College. In addition to his academic role, he also works as an organizational consultant through his firm, Franz Consulting. Their new book, Meaningful Partnership at Work: How the Workplace Covenant Ensures Mutual Accountability and Success between Leaders and Teams (Productivity Press, Aug. 27, 2021), provides a powerful model of how work partnerships can be created and sustained. Learn more at teambuildingprocess.com or silverconsultinginc.com.