As I write this some places are starting to open up from the coronavirus quarantine. That has me thinking about the work that managers have in front of them as people transition back to the office.

I recently read a piece called “It’s okay to not be okay” and that struck a chord with me.  The author was feeling not okay, but then a little guilty that in her privileged life where she has food and a job and clothes, and everything, really – is it okay for her to not feel okay?

So I want to put it out there in case you need to hear it. No matter your circumstance, no matter how much better it is than someone else’s: It is absolutely okay for you to be feeling whatever you’re feeling.  It’s okay to feel you’re not okay. It’s okay to feel like you’re fine, and that you’re appreciating the silver linings of the situation. It’s okay to feel creative and to be learning something new. And it’s okay to be just getting through it the best you can.

One of the things that trips us up as leaders – for ourselves and for other people – are the expectations that we have about how we (or someone else) should experience a situation. We can fall prey to the idea that an experience has to be only one way.

The reality is that different people are different. They see things differently. They think about things differently. They experience things differently. They need different things from what we need. Some people need more connection. Others need more space and independence. Some people need more public recognition. Others don’t care about that, or even find it uncomfortable. Some people like a lot of structure. Others rebel against it.

So one of the challenges managers face is understanding all of the different ways of working, ways of thinking, ways of being that are represented by your members. Then, making space for those differences. Understanding that there’s not just one way to think about or look at a situation.

Being able to do that with other people, requires that you first be able to do it with all of the parts of yourself. That means making room for the part of you that’s not okay, and the part of you that’s just fine. Making room for the part of you that likes being home AND the part that can’t wait to get back to the office. The more you can make space for all of these experiences to coexist inside you, the easier it will be for you to be empathetic and supportive when these same differences show up among your team members.

As we’re starting to open up, and people are going back to offices, some important differences are likely to surface. People will have different feelings about going back into the world and back to work, if they’ve been home for these past couple of months.

Thinking about this reminded me of when I was pregnant.  In about the 6th month, I ended up on bed rest for a while. It was scary at first, because I wanted to be sure everything was okay with the baby. But once I got in the routine of it, I was actually pretty happy. My husband got the short end of the stick, because he had to do the cooking and laundry. But for me – I had this nice routine where I’d shuffle myself off to the sofa each morning and I surround myself with my laptop, my books and my TV remote. I’m kind of a quiet person, so that was okay with me – in fact, in some ways, it was heavenly!

Later, when I was through the bedrest period, and it was clear that everything was okay and I could be up and about again, rather than feeling relieved, I was actually kind of scared. I felt like I was leaving my safe little nest.

I imagine that some people will have this same response to going back to work after quarantine. They’ve gotten into a comfortable routine working at home and will be kind of shy about going out again.  On the other hand, just like those moms who were dying to get up and get going again after bedrest, there will be other people who are super excited to get out and about again. As a manager, it will be important to be thinking about these differences as you’re making plans for people to come back to work, and setting expectations about behavior at work. What will people need in order to feel reassured? What do they need to feel independent?  How can you allow for people to make some individual choices, in a way that’s fair, without insisting that everyone does it the same way?

One of the challenges for managers is that they want to be fair. In order to be fair they create “a way” of doing something.  Unfortunately, having everyone do something the same way doesn’t necessarily end up feeling fair. Different people can experience the same circumstance very differently. What one person experiences as a relief and a sense of freedom, someone else might experience as frightening and disorienting.

As you’re thinking about plans for getting back to work and the “New normal” keep an eye on how to create that in a way that takes different styles and ways of working into account. Even better if this is set up in a way that allows for individual choices, so each person can do what works best for their circumstances. For example, you could allow for someone who’s comfortable working at home, and concerned about going back to work to ease back in a few days per week.  At the same time, someone else who’s excited to get back to work could come back full time.

As managers one of the great gifts we have is the amount of difference on our teams. There’s a richness that those differences provide.  When we can continue to see them as resources and appreciate them for that, we’re able to make the most of them.  And to truly make that possible for others, leaders go first. The more you can acknowledge the differences you hold, even just in yourself, the better suited you’ll be to do that with the people you lead.

For more ideas on leading your team through uncertainty, check out this training, “The 5-Step Strategy My Clients Use to Excel As Leaders, Even in Uncertain Times”.


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