Spaced desks? Color-coded groups? What about managing the emotions of the moment?


Much has been written, much has been said…

… about various aspects of the “Grand Reopening,” or the “Return To Normal,” or the “We Were This Close and Then Came The Variants,” or whatever you want to call this period. We’ve been writing on it, exhaustively, for the last 3-4 months. Here’s a look at how managers need to have better conversations, for example. Here’s a look at how to benefit from “The Great Resignation.” (Yes, you can.) Here’s a thorough recap on how to de-escalate challenging situations at work, of which there will be many as people return. And that point needs a bit more discussion.

There is going to be a very heavy emotional focus as people return to offices. Some employees will be anti-vax, some employees will forget social skills, some people will have reconsidered their connection to work during COVID, etc. These are deeply-held beliefs in many cases, about individual rights, health, work-life balance, definitions of success, and more.

There are lots of different things to unpack here, and several interesting combinations of how things might go down in different offices as people grapple with “the return.”

What can managers do?

First: appreciate and name emotions

Managers often don’t want to deal in emotions. They’re messy, they’re awkward, and to many, they don’t feel like what work is. Isn’t work supposed to be about tasks, productivity, innovation, and achievement? It’s not a place where people cry, right? A League of Their Own got that part right.

This is, obviously, incorrect. Work is made up of human beings, and human beings are emotional creatures whose brains will respond differently to any number of situations, from a deceased pet to health concerns to being passed over for a plum assignment. You cannot simply ignore emotions; that makes you a horrible manager. Rather, first you need to admit that emotions are integral to how work gets done.

Then you need a strategy for actually dealing with those emotions. The best place to start is usually around naming them.

Research has shown that simply labeling emotions verbally can reduce their intensity. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses. Similarly, pausing to mentally label a threat will help you understand how the threat will affect each party’s cognitive functions and actions.

And by understanding the impact of threat response on cognition and behavior, leaders can offset the potential negative side-effects by communicating in a way that comforts a brain in crisis. The result is a decreased chance of escalation and employees that are more focused, engaged, and productive.

When you talk with direct reports, really talk to them:

  • What’s going on in their life outside of work?
  • What are their fears?
  • What are their concerns?
  • What excites and worries them about work now?
  • What emotions are they experiencing? (Encourage labeling.)
  • How can you best support them in this time?
  • How often do they want to do check-ins?
  • What do you want your career to look like in three years?

Then: Find a common ground with the executives

It probably does need to be admitted that a lot of execs wanting a return is based on a need for control, and a concern about real estate positions. (“Why did I spend millions on these buildings if no one will be there?!?!?”) These executives saw their 2020 returns. In many industries, it was a banner year. The execs know work, and money, is achievable with people at home. But they’re playing a game aimed at their ego. Without acknowledging that reality, it’s hard to go forward.

There will be a reckoning if employees are simply expected to roll over for the executives in the name of hierarchy. If your executive level doesn’t understand the need for balance and autonomy among employees, you need to try and bridge that gap. Talk to the most senior people about innovation at home vs. innovation in an office. Cite 2020 revenue numbers. Heck, cite this article, which will debunk a lot of the nonsense around “You must be in an office to be productive.” Try to find a middle ground where executives feel like they have a semblance of control, and their lease or spend on real estate is justified, but employees also feel like they have a degree of autonomy to work the way they want (and, in the case of aging parents or kids still in digital school, the way they might need to.)

Third: De-escalate, then do it some more.

There’s a reason we called de-escalation “the most crucial management skill of 2021.” We’re in an insanely-charged time, where something as innocuous as Mr. Potato Head can cause 48 hours of cable news debates. It’s very messy out there. As people with differing belief structures return to offices in a hybrid format, arguments and tensions are going to flare. What then?

Our brains are designed to constantly scan our environment for potential threats and rewards. When a potential threat is detected, the brain enters a state of heightened alertness to prepare us to react. That fight-freeze-flight response is our body preparing for trouble. Whether the threat is real or perceived, physical or social, our response impacts how we hear others, how we process information, and what decisions we make under pressure. In short, we have cognitive blinders on and are making quick, but potentially harmful, decisions.

Our brains can enter different levels of threat according to the legitimacy and immediacy of the danger we face. For the sake of simplicity, we can call them levels one, two, and three.

  • Level 1 threats are in your broader environment; they do not seem to pose immediate danger. You’re alert but not alarmed.
  • Level 2 threats are those in your neighborhood. You’re highly alert and somewhat alarmed.
  • Level 3 threats are upon you. You’re highly alert and highly alarmed.

So now, as organizations are shepherding people back to the office, employees are suffering from return-to-work anxiety—both surrounding the physical safety of their offices, and their ability to adapt to office social norms again—and increased sense of threat.

Managers need to constantly keep employees at Level 1 or below. Naming emotions, and quality conversations — both discussed above — can help with that. So can raw transparency about what’s happening with the business and the decision-making around physical locations.

As ever: Change the role of managers

If you manage managers, help them to shift their role. You want to move away from:

  • Meetings
  • Calls
  • Payroll and back-of-house stuff
  • Discipline
  • Making sure the work gets done
  • Long lunches to avoid work

… and towards:

  • Quality conversations with employees
  • De-escalating situations
  • Contextualizing the work
  • Transparency on decision-making around vaccines, masks, physical space, etc.
  • Reducing threat
  • Increasing insight

The first list of bullets is how many have conceptualized managers for decades. They move the ball down the field in service of the senior executives.

The second list of bullets is our grand COVID opportunity to recontextualize management around actually being people-driven and driving employee motivation.

This is our moment (H/T The Goonies). This is our time, right now. It’s a very emotional landscape out there, and if we can properly navigate it, we can reinvent work for a new generation.

Author: Ted Bauer

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