on returning to on-site work: three small EQ tips with a big impact for managers

Despite the fireworks and celebrations, have you detected a vague scent of dread when you talk about returning to work on-site full-time? Companies are revving up with policies and plans, preparations are underway to get us all back to “normal.” Sorta.

We each have had a different experience during this lockdown adventure. There’s been a well-reported spike in puppy acquisition, sourdough enthusiasts, nurturers of house plants, and of course, endless digital meetings. Now, it’s back to on-site work. What does that mean for you, the manager, whose teams will be returning? You must articulate the needs of the company or department while taking into account the needs of your team.

These three tips may help you navigate with a little more emotional intelligence in the middle of planning. Especially when your staff (and you) may be feeling like they’re coming out of a muddy swamp.

First, recognize the conflicts people may be experiencing. The stakes are high here, so if someone is quietly struggling, pay attention. It can surface as a timid (or aggressive!) question in a chat. Sure, we’re post-Covid and mostly vaccinated, but it wasn’t that long ago that we were collectively scared. Now the working world is demanding yet another big pivot. A junior staffer told me, “When I heard we were all expected to be back in the office full-time next month I felt a bubble of panic growing in my chest. It’s not that I haven’t worked really hard this year, but to lose the flexibility in my days? I’ve seriously considered quitting.”

Second, acknowledge their challenges and conflicts. Make room for individual conversations with your staff, rather than an electronic survey. Ask them directly what they have missed about being together in the office. Ask them what they’re worried about. It often demands great courage for a staff member to bring concerns to the manager. So reach out first. Directly invite conversation. Taking the time to do this in a one-on-one way allows you to observe body language and tone of voice. If they’re feeling conflicted, it does not mean your staff does not want to work. It just means that we all have mixed feelings about the process. One person expressed the range of his feelings, “Remote working was awful. We were all scared, terrified really. My grandmother died of Covid. We felt trapped. Every time I scheduled another digital meeting, I screamed inside.” He went on, “Now I’m looking forward to problem-solving in person. But this last year,” here he paused for a long time, “I spent more time with my two teenage boys than I ever would’ve gotten a chance to do, and I’ve been so grateful for that. And quite frankly, I’ll miss those moments. I’m a little afraid of getting sucked back in.”

And finally, where ever possible, adapt. Add bespoke flexibility to your company policy. There is a race for talent, so it’s time to truly assess your needs to assure that you retain the right folks on the job. Can you offer three days on-site and two remote? Can you begin those first weeks in the office with a later start time to allow for commuter adjustments? Can you ease into on-site work in some other way that works for you? Can you announce a scheduled reassessment meeting to assure the team that you’re committed to working out best practices? Most industries are developing return-to-on-site work policies that are necessarily broad-spectrum. If you can tailor yours to the realities of your team’s needs, you’ll be ahead of the game in retaining your quality staff.

No matter what policy you land on, wisely leverage the game-changing lessons we learned during remote work. Recognize the impact of the last year on your staff, acknowledge their conflicts, and adapt where possible.

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on a year of chopping up the ugly

It’s been a year! If you’re like me, you can easily recall the eerie dread as we closed up our offices, sent our teams home to dining table workspaces, and hunkered down in front of a stream of bad public health news.

Nate

A year later and I’ve done all the standard lockdown “things:” Nurtured Desmond (my sourdough starter) into bubbly life; incorporated Cookie (a stray dog) into our family, and faithfully logged time with Duolingo lessons (Spanish). I slowly modified my workspace to the point that it actually looks like a home office.  My clients and colleagues saw me on Zoom and Teams instead of in person. And in between nighttime gorging on British crime dramas and baking experiments, I quilted. My daughter sent me the scraps of her mask-making endeavor and I just kept sewing them together.

Florence

There is something beautiful and ridiculous and entirely appropriate about commemorating this year by turning shreds of homemade personal protective equipment into something as banal as a blankie. (Or ten of them.) In the quilter’s world, we call this “chopping up the ugly.” When nothing much about the individual scrap is useful or even pretty, put it all together, and something magical happens.

Look back on this complicated year. What surprising bonus or blessing showed up? How has your work life changed for the better? What potentially painful bits have you cobbled together to create something oddly beautiful? Have you innovated in a way that turned the sour into sweet?

I know you have. Congratulations.

on the perils of the “hub and spoke”

“Hub-and-spoke” conjures up an image of an old-style wagon wheel. It also refers to a management style where the boss is in the middle (the hub) and all information and decisions are run back up through the middle and disseminated back out to the staff, administration, or department heads (the spokes). If the hub is tireless and tenacious, the theory goes, the wheel will run smoothly.

Here’s when it might be a useful, albeit temporary, approach:

  • You’ve just launched your own business and have to take on all the roles in the service of survival. It’s only as the business grows that the process of delegation and letting go can begin.
  • You’re a brand-new leader and you want to assess the individual operators.  This may be useful if you think there is a failure in say, the widget department, and need to get your head around it.

And that’s it.

In every other case, it’s inefficient, demoralizing, and divisive. If you’re the boss, it will grind you down. And above all else, it will give you a false sense of being educated about the business and about being in control. And if you’ve ever been on the staff of someone who is a committed “hub,” you know that your innovation and enthusiasm wanes as quickly as your frustration mounts.

It’s inefficient. If everyone needs the boss’s permission and approval to act, all effort to innovate must come from the boss, not an empowered staff. Productive action grinds to a crawl when everything is generated from a central point. Cross-functional decision-making is hampered.

It’s confusing. Not only is it inefficient for the hub boss to have to tell multiple “spokes” the same thing over and over, but the mission loses coherency quickly. Each “spoke” loses the benefit of hearing instructions to the others that would’ve deepened their understanding of the project. They have less empathy for their colleagues’ role in implementing it. The shared expertise of colleagues is lost, along with a united message. And the boss at the hub misses out entirely on the opportunity to hear viable questions from other “spokes” that would better the final product.

It’s demoralizing. Under a hub-and-spoke model, you can hire a staff, but you can never build a truly collaborative team. Confusion and wearying detours arise when one “spoke” finds out that her colleague has been working on a similar, but slightly different, set of instructions. Hub-and-spoke management might get you people who just show up and do precisely (and nothing more than) what they’re told, but the innovative, morale-lifting, cooperative work never flourishes.

It’s divisive. If everyone in the unit is centered on the hub, even senior staff members compete for the boss’s attention, affection, and approval. Sharp elbows develop when the wrong behavior gets rewarded. Information gets hoarded. Seeking the boss’s approval becomes more important than team excellence and implementing mission-driven ideas.

It’s exhausting. If everything has to run through the hub boss, it is simply not sustainable. Even the most high-octane leader needs to have an empowered, inspired staff to grow their business. I often ask clients, “How does your team function in your absence?” If the answer is, “I’m not sure they can make good decisions,” or worse, “I’m not sure that I can trust them,” there’s a problem.

It’s fake control. If you’re a hub manager, you might feel like a star and you might think you’re on top of everything this way, but this approach hides the fragility in your business or institution. Every spoke is trying to win your approval, not join with you and your colleagues to make things work. The truth about the organization is hidden from you.

If you’re at the center of a hub-and-spoke operation, how do you begin to implement another style?

First, truly recognize the costs of doing business this way. Don’t judge yourself for leading with this model; instead, calmly acknowledge the perils. Once you start to notice the inefficiencies, frustrations, and lack of coherent messages, for instance, you’ll be inspired to change.

Second, at every decision point, bring all the stakeholders in the conversation together to strategize. If you’re going to trust them to implement decisions, trust them enough to consult transparently with them along the way. Some of the stakeholders might be lower in the chain of command than you normally would invite to a discussion, but the people who have to implement the strategy will often ask the savviest questions.

Finally, reward collaboration and inter-departmental problem-solving. The hub-and-spoke style, which might have initially made you feel like a star, will wear you down and undermine your success. Clear direction, training, and an understanding of the mission are all well and good, but to really build a business, build connections among colleagues first.

on how you can’t do a don’t

She Chose The Most Important Issue We Should Address

A gentle reminder for parents, managers, and protesters.

When I took my toddlers into a store, it never led to success when I said, “Don’t touch anything!” Or worse yet, “Don’t break anything!” What was more effective was, “Put your hands in your pockets and keep them there.”

It’s quite reasonable to tell a colleague to “never miss a deadline.” It is usually more effective to say, “please get a draft to me by Friday.” It’s even more motivating to have a bigger rationale: “If we get this project done on time, we have a shot at increasing this quarter’s sales.”

And a protest by definition starts with a “no,” but will always benefit from clearly promoting what you want instead. Even better, make it something we all want.

On poems left in the printer

Eight years ago, I travelled to Idaho for a holiday with friends on a mountain lake. For a long time after I got home, I left this poem on my printer, so I would see it when I printed work-related items.  Finding this  when I was caught up in the get-‘er-done mode effectively conjured a snapshot of peaceful moment.  I found it again in a file the other day and sat with a happy memory, reminding myself to “enjoy this moment, kid, it’s what you’ve got.”

SPIRIT LAKE

Pine trees raggedly perforate
the sky around the lake.
The fishing boat drifts on the gleaming water, silent
except for the splash of the little mocking Kokonos
who leap—laughing—at the Green Giant corn
niblets on the hook.

A cell phone startles – blasphemy!

We forgive the intrusion; it’s the wife
of a liver transplant patient.

“He’s doing very well,” our fishing doctor tells her.

“If my mother or brother or son had to have this surgery, I would want these same people taking care of them.”

He is clear and patient and reassuring,

“Of all the complicated surgeries, this is the most complicated, so you should expect…well, complications,” he tells her. “But we’re prepared for complications, we thrive on them.”

A bobber dips – fish on!

We mull the grace of our fragile joy,
encircled by the pine-deckled lake,
the shushing trees and chubby toddler clouds.
What lives we live—
complicated and so beautiful.

What kinds of small totems can you plant for your future self to serve as refreshing moments and reminders?

On my outrage

I’m not sure that I get to fully wave the flag of my outrage or despair or disbelief these days. Instead, I may just get to acknowledge that I’m only truly beginning to fully absorb the daily experience–inconveniences, harassment, worries, precautions, small fears, and huge, legitimate fears for family members’ lives–of my darker-skinned brothers and sisters. If an African American looks at my white outrage with calm, resigned, and unsurprised eyes and says, “Yes, and long before someone started recording these reprehensible behaviors for the world to see, we have lived with them,” I get to take that in. And then I have to get educated, make my alliances clear, and take a stand for building an anti-racist world.

Fred Rogers and Francois Clemmons

on my mom and meditation

My mother taught me basic meditation skills when I was quite young. If you’ve ever been to a Quaker Meeting, you’ll get an idea of the Meetings I grew up with.  Lots of quiet sitting, especially for a little kid. When an old friend called recently, he recalled with wonder about how we sat so still in Meeting. I laughed, thinking about how Mom taught me to sit like that.

She said to “sit and concentrate on your breath going in and out.” Then, when I would get restless again, “sit and listen for your heartbeat.” One time she told me to “sit and taste my spit,” an instruction I find hilarious now. Or “sit and feel all the little ridges on the roof of your mouth with your tongue.” My favorite was, “sit and listen to the blood pumping through your arteries and give thanks that you’re alive.”

Lots of sitting still.

Of course, if all else failed and I still squirmed, she would give me “the look”—stern, unflinching—and that would work, too.

Because she was absolutely devoted to God, she would remind me that unless I learned to sit very quietly, I would “miss the Still Small Voice speaking to me.”

My mother died in 1974, which is such a long time ago, and today my spiritual beliefs are not the same as hers were. However, my daily meditation practice is, in many ways, an homage to her, along with my continuing commitment to listen for that still, small voice.

me and my mom, 1964

on “it came to pass”

There are some events in life that render permanent change: the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, losing a job, a sudden divorce. It’s safe to add a few meaningful world events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, Arab Spring or a global viral pandemic to that list, as well. Those of us who have experienced profound injury, illness or loss in our lives can attest to just how thin the veneer of our control really is.  Waking up to an awareness of that kind of impermanance can be as shocking to our system as a 3 AM alarm in the middle of REM sleep, even though ancient wisdom tells us that the sense of control we have in normal circumstances is an illusion.

Yeah, yeah, that’s nice.

But what about right now? When anxiety and adrenaline are flooding us, how can we anchor and maintain a sense of ease and balance?  How can we soothe and cultivate healing?

Counter-intuitively, the first step is to feel the sorrow and anxiety and restlessness…and yes, sometimes even terror. Our bodies are always in the present moment, even when our minds are spinning frantically. I don’t know about you, but I’m used to running away, keeping busy, reading another article, starting another project, or even helping someone else. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a nice dose of Netflix and chocolate (my personal go-tos), but as those patterns of self-soothing are revealed, inject a tiny pause of non-judgmental noticing. That’s a start. Then, in that space, we can remind ourselves of that timeless phrase, “and it came to pass.” While we’re not sure what’s on the other side of any crisis, we have experience of looking back on personal turmoil (sometimes with surprise that we survived) and know that, yes, it did come to pass.

on Aunt Rhoda’s advice for making it to the top

Aunt Rhoda,* who is half-way through her ninth decade, has a tactic for any long-haul climb, “like climbing to the top of the Washington Monument, which everyone knows is quite a trek.”

Fifty flights of stairs? Aunt Rhoda says the trick is to stop and say, “let’s look at the view from here!” every time you need a breather.

What a good reminder to frame the exhaustion and breathlessness as a positive opportunity to stop and take into account how far you’ve already come. Rest a little, she says, and don’t just focus on how far you have to go.**

Oh, and don’t climb with impatient people. Choose your hiking companions carefully. Aunt Rhoda reminds us to climb with people who will let you catch your breath. Go with the ones who will laugh and empathize with you. One of my best friends notices when I start my asthmatic wheezing. I’ve caught him smiling to himself before he says, “let’s slow down a little because my knee is barking.”

 

 

*Aunt Rhoda isn’t my aunt. She’s the aunt of a dear friend and I just claim her because she’s cool and smart and funny.

**This is a variation on the technical question, “How do you eat a Woolly Mammoth?”  Each of the “single bites at a time” of a complicated project is worth celebrating.

on what I learned from the Marines

For better or worse, I was raised by a Marine. That means I learned to work hard, suck it up, and get things done uncomplainingly. I learned how to make my bed so a quarter could bounce on it. I learned to offer no defensive explanation when I got in trouble even if I could see no earthly way that it was my fault. I learned that the team is bigger and more important than I am. I learned that courage comes from the French word for heart and that courage is sometimes as good as love.

Like all childhood lessons, they’ve each had to be un-learned to some degree.

But one little useful thing has been showing up for me, almost daily.

“Don’t just stand there.” When you’re completely stuck or paralyzed with not-knowing, pick up a broom and sweep the room. Or take care of the task required by that one piece of paper on your desk you’ve been avoiding. Or that email at the bottom of your in-box. Do one small thing. One thing at a time.

And in taking one small action, the way starts to shake clear. Next steps reveal themselves.

Don’t just stand there.

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