How to Get Culture Right for Reentry

Your office has been closed for weeks, and now you’re gearing up to bring employees back to work. Leadership teams are tackling the operational issues of how everyone can maintain a safe distance and still keep the business going. As you and countless other business leaders figure out the logistics of reentry, it is time to put important culture elements in place.

Why get intentional about workplace culture right now? With reopening on the horizon, culture is the glue that will hold everything — and everyone — together. When your company culture is based on putting people first, policies become promises. Teams and individuals become each other’s champions because everyone looks out for each other. Most importantly, at a time when stress levels are high, you can create an environment where workers feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe.

Here are four checkpoints to help you do it.

Explain what’s changed — and why

Mitigating anxiety must be one of your top priorities during reentry, and explaining the “why” behind every key decision can help calm frayed nerves. (Remember what Victor E. Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said? “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.’”) You can start with why you and other company leaders believe it’s necessary for some to return to the office. Outline any new physical and logistical guidelines and why they exist, and demonstrate any processes or systems you’ve put in place. Spend time reviewing policies about everything from personal hygiene and personal space to communal kitchens and elevator etiquette. Bottom line? Show how much you care by anticipating questions and answering them before they’re even asked. If people voice concerns — and some certainly will — listen carefully. Assume the best intentions, and, where appropriate be willing to modify your plans based on their concerns.

Create shared agreements and diligence

One of the cornerstones of what I call “bright” culture is creating shared agreements for anything the company is going to tackle. In order to achieve the shared diligence it takes to safely reopen, the best leaders inspire people to do more than just comply with a policy or protocol; they motivate them to uphold it for the greater good. When you clearly articulate the larger team purpose of taking care of each other and the potential risks of relaxing your vigilance, you tap into a deep well of intrinsic motivation. You’ll strengthen your team’s sense of trust, empathy, and community, too.

When I talk to leaders and teams about the power of making shared agreements, I often mention the announcement we’ve all heard in airports: “If you see something, say something.” When we’re traveling, we accept that we need to do our part to keep each other safe. If someone reports seeing something suspicious, we consider them a hero — not a tattletale. Your culture goal is to inspire an “All for one, and one for all!” mindset across the whole company.

I want to mention one particular challenge you may face during reentry: establishing uniform workplace standards for people who may have wildly varying expectations and comfort levels. Some folks may think there’s not much that needs to change in the workplace. Others assume that everything will be different. Still others will land somewhere in the middle. Your culture imperative is to create a safe space for people to express themselves while always supporting the least comfortable members on the team.

Encourage two-way communication

No doubt your approach to reopening is transparent, practical, and sound. Yet you need to know for sure if your plans, policies, and protocols are working — both tactically and on an individual, human level. That’s why establishing two-way communication is essential. Find out what’s good and what could be better by creating a variety of safe feedback channels (some may need to be private or anonymous) like surveys, text messaging, employee portals, and one-to-one or small group meetings. Set up systems for requesting and receiving regular input from across the company. Be prepared to quickly adapt, adjust, and amend your approach, especially in the early stages of reopening.

Discover new strengths

I’ve taken countless teams on outdoor adventures, and I love it when I discover that the quietest person also happens to be a confident and commanding leader. These days, my remote teams keep surprising me in the same wonderful way. Last week, a biotech firm was brainstorming about how to maintain a sense of connection during the shelter in place, and one scientist had a great idea. He suggested holding an informal weekly Zoom call to get to know the executive team better. Who could have guessed that this scientist now would be honing his skills as a talk show host — and nailing it? The lesson: Pay attention to emerging leaders and support the skills and talents that are being revealed. Encouraging people as they expand further amplifies the competence of your team.

As folks return to the office, these culture checkpoints will help your company stay strong. You can help ease employees’ anxiety (and, by the way, your own) by communicating often, creating shared agreements, encouraging two-way feedback, and celebrating emerging leadership. When you do, you’ll build trust, and your team will feel valued and supported. These checkpoints made sense before the pandemic, and they’re even more important today.

Need culture guidance as you prepare for going back to work? I can help. Drop me a line.

Candra Canning is the founder of Live Bright Now. She’s been coaching corporate leaders + teams to brighten their performance for 20 years. Candra believes a bright company culture creates bright leaders + bright communities — even a brighter world.

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Candra Canning

Candra Canning is the founder of Live Bright Now. She’s been coaching corporate leaders + teams to brighten their performance for 20 years. Candra believes a br