return to work

A coach approach to transitioning your team’s return to work

Using a coach approach with your team members can help them with communication, innovation, self-reliance, confidence, taking responsibility and even with their work relationships. 

Our clients and regular readers of our blog are familiar with what it means to use a coach approach to leadership, but you may not have thought about how you can use it to transition people back to work during these uncertain times.

The pressure is on for us to adapt and keep leading our teams while we all figure out what business is going to look like in the months ahead. Chances are that there are a range of reactions among your team members to returning to workfrom happy and excited to get back into the office to hesitant and worried about health, family and child care.

Many businesses are looking at continuing to have some or all team members work remotely, but when a temporary solution becomes a longer-term reality that is still a change to manage for everyone.

Adding coaching to your leadership toolkit works really well alongside mentoring (guiding by sharing your own experience), directing (telling folks what they need to do) and teaching (showing them how to do something).

Here are some ideas for using coaching to help your team members return to work:

Try having one-to-one conversations with each direct report privately: Reach out to each of your direct reports, asking open-ended questions about their expectations, their doubts, their concerns and their hopes so that you have a good sense of what’s on their minds – the good and the bad. When we start going back to the office, what would you like to see happen? What would you like to see change from before? What concerns you? 

Be a reliable source of information: Ask people what they want to know from you or from the company. When they ask about something that you’re not sure about or that you don’t have an answer for, be willing to say “I don’t know yet.” Offer to look into it and to get back to them.

Reassure your team about uncertainty: It’s very likely that your team members are going to ask you questions relating to things that you have been asking “higher-ups.” If the “higher-ups” aren’t responding or aren’t giving you the info you need, don’t blame them when you’re struggling to answer your team member’s question. Remember no matter how senior and powerful and decisive they may be, they’re human and they’re quite likely struggling with all this uncertainty as much as you are. Instead, respond with something like, “That’s a good question that I’ve also asked. We don’t have the answer yet, but I’m on it and will keep you updated as soon as I know.” 

Learn to be honest about (and comfortable with!) not having all the answers: Believe it, or not, survey after survey shows that employees greatly prefer hearing a boss say they don’t know and will try to find out than having a boss who avoids tough questions, makes up answers that may later change or avoids the conversation entirely. If your view of leadership includes “always having the answers,” it’s essential that you work on this – especially if you want to reassure your team during uncertain times. Now is the perfect time to practise some vulnerability with, “I don’t know, yet” and some empathy with, “but I hear your concern and I’m going to do my best to get answers for all of us.”

Encourage your direct reports to use a coach approach: If your direct reports also have people they manage, at the end of your coach approach conversation with your direct report, encourage them to have similar conversations with their direct reports (and so on and so on). At that time, point out to them some of the things you did in your conversation with them that they might do with their direct reports (or, provide them with a copy of this post and our coach approach to leadership post).

Broaden the discussion: In addition to one-to-one conversations with your direct reports, try holding a virtual town hall with them and their next level down (or further – all the way to an all-staff virtual meeting, depending how many people you can put on your video system). If you don’t have a webinar tool or virtual meeting tool, try Zoom – it has become the most common choice and offers a free version for meetings up to 40 minutes long and accommodates up to 100 participants. During that virtual town hall, have some remarks prepared about what you know and what you’re still working on. Pre-arrange to have someone else on the call take notes for you, in particular, to record things you commit to doing or questions you commit to answering. Ask people for input and for their questions. Remind them that you value the questions to help you make sure you’re addressing the issues and concerns you may not have thought of. Whenever anyone asks you a question, thank them for stepping up to speak (especially if it’s a large group).  

Be as responsive to the group as you are to your direct reports: As with the one-to-one meetings, ask people during a virtual town hall meeting what they want to know from you or from the company. When they ask and you’re not sure or you don’t have an answer, be willing to say “I don’t know yet.” Offer to look into it and to get back to them. When you get an answer (or even a bit of the answer) try to respond personally to the person who asked AND to the group. For example, email Mary in accounting to tell her the response and to thank her again for asking. Then include the answer in an all-staff email update or on the company intranet or post it to the company chat board. Mention the answer in your update at your next leadership team meeting and remind your direct reports to pass along the answer to everyone who reports to them.

Build regular outreach into your calendar: Remind yourself that the one-to-ones with your direct reports (and theirs, with their direct reports) need to be more often right now, not less. Schedule reminders so you don’t miss checking in with your team amid all the other work demands. Additionally, make the virtual town hall conversations a more frequent occurrence and not “one and done” – particularly if you still have folks working remotely some or all of the time.  

Keep the information flowing: Yes, this sounds like a LOT of communicating and perhaps over-communicating but in a time like this, when people are stressed and anxious about returning to work – and answers and the way forward are uncertain – you really can’t overcommunicate. Now, more than ever, your role as a leader is to help others be the best they can be – that means a big part of your day is going to be talking with people, finding out what they need, what they’re worried about and answering questions for them.  If you don’t already schedule that into your day, it now needs to be a priority.

Coach’s Questions

How do you feel about trying a coach approach to help your team members return to work? What benefits do you see from trying it? What’s the first thing you want to try?

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