A new challenge looms as several industries and organizations move towards opening their doors or bringing employees back to physical locations.
What does it take to effectively “re-board,” or re-integrate employees into daily operations? There are multiple things to account for, from the “new normal” of applicable state and local guidelines to restoring pertinent job knowledge, standard workflows and processes, technical skills, and constructive interpersonal dynamics. Then there’s helping people acclimate to necessary shifts that have happened in these areas, not to mention the logistical and psychological implications that come along with them.
The experienced amongst us have successfully re-boarded individuals returning to stable teams where little has changed in their absence. An employee comes back from maternity/paternity leave, an active tour of duty, or an extended leave of absence and the process is fairly straightforward; provide them with reliable peers and the well-established resources they need to get back on their feet. Re-boarding an entire group of people is a different story; in many cases, no one stayed behind to maintain consistency and the organization people are coming back to is almost certainly not the organization they left.
So where do we start? Research on the brain would suggest that we need to answer three important questions; what’s the same, what’s not the same, and what has changed.
What’s the same?
Presuming employees will just know the answer to this is risky. When our brains store acceptable behaviors, they store them along with details about the environment we learned them in. Behaviors turn into habits with continuous reinforcement, and that has likely been lacking for people who have been away from their dedicated workspace. Framed in identity terms, “work from home me” is a distinct identity from “work in the office me.” With that distinction comes newly-learned behaviors and tendencies that may have helped people adapt to working from home, but will prove less useful back in the office.
So get back to reinforcing positive workplace behaviors by communicating ways of getting things done that will now return to “business as usual.” Examples of this might include procedures for reserving common meeting rooms or handling office visitors.
What’s not the same?
Some aspects of the job will not be “business as usual,” of course, and this is where you’ll need to address old habits that no longer work. To accomplish this with our brains, we need to weaken the strength of counterproductive, old connections we made or otherwise disrupt them. This could be particularly challenging for longer-tenured employees, who have built up years of reinforcement around old rules or process flows. The same could be true for relatively new employees who have known the post-COVID-19 version of your organization for a significant portion of their tenure.
Interrupt these patterns with multiple reminders using a variety of communication techniques (written, verbal, visual). Start with a short list of essential modifications and gradually build in less mission-critical adaptations. The goal is to get someone to stop themselves mid-pattern and think; “wait a minute, this is different now.” Social distancing guidelines could be one application of this as employees unlearn old ways of interacting that do not conform with established policies. Traffic patterns through your building are another possible application for those who had grown accustomed to entering, leaving, and moving through the building in habitual ways that no longer comply with expectations.
Considering “what’s new?” and “what’s not the same?” might seem redundant, but not with our brains. Whereas the latter requires us to deconstruct or reroute old connections, new additions to our knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics require us to construct novel patterns. In other words, we’re concerned with learning here as opposed to re-learning (what’s the same?) or unlearning (what’s not the same?). Many businesses have taken this time to remodel or install new machinery and technology that requires training. New product development has also increased during this period, and staff may need to be educated on the work of smaller groups or task forces over the last few months.
Facilitating effective learning could easily be a blog unto itself, but suffice it to say here that employee motivation, ability, and capacity are critical factors along with support and reinforcement from supervisors, peers, and subject matter experts. Even expertly-designed learning paradigms, complete with practice, repetition, and specific, actionable feedback can fail amongst a learning audience that is unmotivated, unable, or incapable.
Getting on Board with Re-boarding
With the right focus, your re-boarding process can be just what employees need to thrive as they return. Start by listing things that fall under each of these three categories for your employees as part of your organizational reentry plan. Consider working with a PRADCO coach who can guide you through the navigation process. We can also assist you with assessing the current state of employees behaviorally or providing a workshop to your organization on any one of a variety of topics pertaining to effective work habit building.