Scary vs dangerous – returning to the workplace

As organisations are starting to get people back into the workplace, or at least having these kind of conversations on the agenda, we have been keen to hear what some of our clients have been saying about this. At a recent round table discussion online, it’s clear that people are feeling a wide range of emotions about returning to their place of work. It is also clear that there are things that leaders can do to help ease the transition, and the concerns.

It is probably worth starting with a cautionary note about the language we use when talking about this topic. As our client ‘S’ pointed out when the question of ‘going back to work’ was raised “It’s something that we’ve been pulled up on because people get slightly agitated with it. When we say people are ‘going back to work’, people have been working and believe me, people get really, really annoyed with you when you say that they’ve got to go back to work.” So, a simple reminder when talking about this is to refer to ‘back to the office’ – this might help you start off on the right footing!

We recognise that what is about to happen for many people is a second, significant change in the way they work. In March, and almost overnight, there was a move for people to work from home, which presented a great number of challenges. What we’re seeing now is a reversal of that change to start to bring people back in to their ‘old’ working environment, although this time on a staggered basis for many organisations. As we start to ask people to break their ‘new routines’ and start to think about re-engaging with some older ways of working – creating ‘the new normal’ we keep hearing about – it’s worth noting that some people will be nervous about this, seeing this as ‘scary’, and in some instances even asking whether it is ‘dangerous’, but we’ll look more at this a little later!

So, what kind of things might be going through people’s minds as they consider the return to the workplace? What we’re hearing is that there will be wide range of thoughts, which probably comes as no great surprise. As leaders though, what approach should we take?

Many organisations have recognised that people will be curious about returning to the workplace: how different will it look, what will be the same and what will be different? The messaging to get everyone to switch to working from home back in March may have unintentionally created feelings that offices (as well as many other public spaces) are not safe. That feeling is going to linger for a while. People may be going back to an office that they have visited many times, but it is not really the same place anymore, with social distancing creating new rules and expectations on how we act within the space. This all creates a feeling of a familiar place being unfamiliar and people feeling unsure of how it will work or even if it is a safe space anymore. This is the challenge that, as leaders, we need to overcome.

And there are a number of ways our clients have already been dealing with this. ‘J’s organisation has been using technology to help them “We’ve consciously kept a communication line open to all of our teams to let them know exactly what’s going on every single step of the way. And we’ve done that by making videos to send to them – we’ve brought in some animation software so we can create some short snappy animations that talk through what’s happening, what’s changing. When it comes to moving back into the office, we’ve had a company do a virtual 4D scan of the entire building. This shows all the sanitizer stations and the one way signs, and they can walk around the office virtually through all of the areas and all the floors so they know what’s where and how it’s going to look when they come in. So they understand where their desk is, the way they have to go, where all their resources are. If you look at one of the kitchenettes, it will come up with a sign to say “only one person allowed in at a time”. So we’ve made them try and feel comfortable with the fact that we’ve done everything we possibly can, plus more. And that’s gone down really well in easing some of the anxiety that people have got.” 4D scans could be a great approach, but to counter this one client also mentioned that their approach was more basic, having stickers on desks that simply highlighted which ones could be sat at and which ones couldn’t – and this was proving to be equally useful.

Another common feature of returning to the workplace is staggering how to bring people back. Again ‘J’ commented “We’re going to be slowly bringing back teams, those are at the least risk will come back first. We’ll make sure they’re comfortable in the office and they’re up and running before we bring the next back and so on. We’ve already made that announcement to them, but also said that we’ve got no date in mind. This is what we’re doing to make it as comfortable for everybody, which seems to have gone down well.”

This may be working so well for companies that, right now, not everyone wants to come back to the workplace. As ‘H’ put it “We’ve probably got about 20% who can’t wait to get back, who were missing the social aspects. We probably then have another 20% who perhaps have health concerns or relatives who have health concerns and are very nervous about going back. And then probably a whole group in the middle where it’s quite a mixed bag.”

Similarly ‘S’ mentioned “We’ve done a ‘back to the office/ site’ guide, which explains everything we’ve done, about our one way system, about using the canteen and about having respect for others. We have a little bit at the beginning of the guide that says people are dealing with this differently, so consider having that mindfulness and appreciation for how people are. And when people are coming back, we’re getting their managers to give them an induction for coming back to the office so that they don’t just slip into their normal pace.”

So, it seems that having some type of re-onboarding process will be helpful in allowing people to process their emotions and feelings and start to think about getting back into some sort of routine.

As leaders, this is really important, as it bridges the rational elements of ‘let’s make arrangements, put a plan in place, communicate’ with the emotional elements of ‘feeling unsure, being insecure, feeling tentative and wanting re-assurance’.

This is why the ‘scary and/or dangerous’ concept was mentioned earlier.
Scary/Dangerous is based on two scales and allows us to use one of our favourite ‘explainer’ tools – the four-box grid!

We feel that our reactions to situations that we feel are dangerous are hardwired into us and are a protective measure – if we do something that is dangerous it could, ultimately, cost us everything. However, dangerous is rational calculation, one that we often get wrong, as there are so many cognitive biases that get in the way. On top of that you have the hardwired reaction, whether we see something as scary or not, which is an emotional response. Our emotional responses happen almost instantly, and rarely use the facts of the situation. When you start to consider these two side by side, we have four scenarios.

Let’s take something that we know is dangerous – for instance standing on a cliff edge, leaning over. We probably know that this is dangerous (admittedly with degrees of risk) but, sitting where you are right now reading this, does this feel scary to you? For most of us, it won’t. However, if we were there, at the cliff edge for most of us it definitely would be scary. Where things are dangerous and scary too, you would really have to ask yourself why would you do that? These things we place in the ‘Crazy Zone’!

Where something is dangerous, but we don’t perceive it as scary – and there may be some people reading this who are happy standing on the cliff edge – you still wouldn’t do this in a blasé way, would you, you’d still be careful. These things go in the ‘Caution Zone’. If you’re going to do them, take care!
Sat at home, reading this, being asked to think about being in a cliff edge is clearly not dangerous (you’re not really there) and for most isn’t scary, so you’re really comfortable with this analogy – hence these things go in your ‘Comfort Zone’.

The final box is where we know it isn’t dangerous, but we still have an emotional reaction telling us it is scary – here we are nervous but can be helped to move forward – this is the Change Zone, and our role as leaders in the current situation, and in helping people return to their place of work, is to help our people ‘come back’.

Linking this to COVID19 and how people may well be feeling is worth drawing out.

Why are things dangerous right now? We have a situation that has (as I write this) taken the lives of around 46,000 people in the UK, and over 667,000 worldwide. This clearly falls into the dangerous category. Yet, there are clear steps that we can take to reduce the risks and make things safer, even if we cannot get to zero risk. We do lots of things with some level of risk, from sports to driving; the difference is that we have normalised those risks and are not constantly reminded of them as we are with COVID19.

Why are people feeling scared right now? There’s the obvious link to the dangers presented by COVID19, but also most people have been secure in their own bubbles, most have stayed safe and kept themselves and their loved ones safe. The talk about leaving bubbles and returning to the workplace is a clear change from this. There are now a range of factors people can’t control – will work colleagues have exercised the same amount of care and followed the rules, or will they have been cavalier in their attitudes? What about getting to work, will they need to be on public transport with a number of strangers? The list could go on.

It is this feeling of scary that is holding people back, and the practical plans that make things safer may have very little impact on the emotional responses of a lot of people. Think about the 20-60-20 split mentioned by ‘H’, 20% don’t perceive this as scary, 20% think this is very scary, but 60% are not sure and are looking for leaders who can help them work this out. Our aim as leaders, therefore, is to help our people to see that we have done everything we can to remove as many of the dangers as possible, and it seems our clients, amongst many others, have some practical approaches to doing this. We also need to help people with their emotions, recognising that we all view ‘scary’ differently and will need different types of reassurance.

Why do we need holidays?

2020 has been a strange year for most of us, and now, adding insult to injury, the summer break feels like it has just been cancelled; lockdown restrictions have limited our ability to get away from it all for a couple of weeks.

This podcast revisits one of our blog articles from two years ago, exploring why anyone in a demanding job really should take a holiday. Two years ago we could ignore the obvious, needing a rest, so considered the other benefits that doing something different, somewhere else have to offer.

Here is the blog if you want to read the original article.

While it might not be two weeks on a beach this year, doing something different will engage the brain and open up solutions to problems, connect the dots of the big issues, offering much needed new insight at this challenging time.

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

How can we keep people united?

Following on from considering the pace at which change can be progressed (click here for that podcast) we are looking at how you can keep people united through uncertain times.  

Change creates plenty of opportunities to divide teams, as people become winners or losers in the change process.  How can leaders actively bring teams together as one?

This podcast was recorded while we are still in lockdown.  Like most people, we are working from home (kids and pets may appear at any time).  Apologies for the quality of one of the mics on this podcast. The perils of working without a producer.

We are still focused on the questions that are getting in the way.

Photo by Jaz King on Unsplash

Re-build trust in the workplace, don’t just make it ‘coronavirus safe’​

As companies are starting to re-introduce people back into their workplaces there will be a range of considerations around whether any PPE is needed, how social distancing will work and what percentage of the workforce should actually be invited back. These are all be very practical considerations and will take some planning. But are these the only challenges organisations and leaders will face over the coming weeks and months?

In a recent round-table discussion we held with some of our clients the topic came around to this type of planning, and it was at that point that someone dropped the following question into the conversation. “But do they want to come back? That’s the challenge!” Food for thought and a question I would like to explore here.

As we enter July it’s worth recognising that there will be some people who have spent more time in 2020 working from home than they have working ‘in the office’ (or your equivalent!). Back in March pretty much everyone was working through the implications of moving their place of work to a home office, spare bedroom or dining room table. This was a time of uncertainty for many people – how would this work, how would they balance getting work done with home schooling, how would they stay in touch with colleagues? And then there were also the people being retained under the furlough scheme (nearly 9 million recorded at the start of June) who were looking at being at home with the uncertainty of when they may be asked to return to work.

Nearly four months on, the ‘how will it work’ has become a thing of the past as it has worked. People have found their working space, they’ve found a way to balance the conflicts of their work and home schooling and they now have well established routines. Working from home, or being furloughed, has been normalised.

And now these people are starting to be asked to break these established routines for something that will resemble their old routines. What thoughts and feelings might this trigger and how, as leaders, might we need to engage people at this time of major change – the second one people will have faced this year.

The thinking that people have leads to them taking certain actions, which in turn will give results (This is one of the core principles that we use with our clients at Thinking Focus: Thinking = Actions = Results). We also know that much of our thinking is done by the subconscious, even though we are more aware of the conscious thoughts that we have, and there are two systems at work: one fast emotional thought process, and a slower, rational thought process. These fast emotionally driven thoughts can be reactive, and lead to our thinking being incredibly unhelpful, trapping in negative world views that can hold us back. Right now, a variety of these thoughts will be being triggered by talk of returning to the workplace.

The posing of the “But do they want to come back?” question led the discussion at the round-table to exploring the different elements of this, noting that there are a number of key considerations for leaders, coming out of the current situation.

The concerns that people may be having will be wide ranging. ‘C’ – who works for a major sports brand – commented “We recently did a survey of everyone to ask, ‘What are your concerns about coming back to work?’ And it was around childcare. That was the big one. And it was around public transport, because we’ve got quite a lot of people who live in city centre coming into where we are. And then obviously shielding issues were mentioned.” And while these were expected, one curveball also came from this survey. ‘C’ mentioned “the one thing that just popped up, was ‘but I have been able to work flexibly. Can I carry on? Do I need to come into the office?’ and it’s come up so many times on all the different responses.”

So aside from some concerns that many leaders have probably thought about, there may be this underlying ‘do I need to go back to the office?’ narrative coming through for people. One of the thoughts put forward by one of our team was “I wonder if the supermarket syndrome comes into play here, you know, you join a queue and only a few people are allowed in. And people seem to conform to all of that social distancing, and then as soon as you’re in the supermarket, it all goes out the window because everybody’s leaning across you. I wonder if that is the concern for some people about coming into the office – will other people respect the distancing?”

There are some known cognitive biases that impact the way we judge our own and others capabilities. They may be playing out here, with some people overestimating their own ability to stick to rules, while at the same time underestimating the ability of others to do the same (Dunning-Kruger effect).

‘A’ from a global Medical technology company mentioned this very thing had come up in a conversation with a colleague. “This manager was one of the ones that tells you this feels uncomfortable. And when she finally could kind of put it into words, what she said was that she knows she’s been seeing more people, but she knows them really well. So she knows that they’ve been following the government guidelines and she knows that they are regularly washing their hands and they won’t invade her space, but she doesn’t feel it’s safe coming back into an office where she doesn’t know those people as well, she doesn’t know what their home environment is like, she doesn’t know who they’re exposed to. So there’s that lack of trust and nervousness, what if somebody walks into your two metres of space and you’re like, what are you doing?”

And of course, if this lack of social distancing happens, will people turn around to a colleague and ask them to ‘back off’ and stay further away?

As ‘C’ from an international print and application company simply put it “And people are not robots, they won’t necessarily follow all rules all the time. And, that’s just not intentional.” Which in the case of their organisation has led them to form the view that they can’t see more than 25% of the workforce being asked to come back to the workplace, to start with.

However, as ‘G’ from a major healthcare service provider put it “I do think it will be safer than public environments like supermarkets or wherever. We’ve got all the tape on the floor, the different measurements (have been made) and we’ve actually invoked a one way system in the building as well.”

So, does this highlight a dual role for leaders at this time? The first being the practical side of getting people back in to the workplace and the second being building the trust for those that are being asked back in, through reducing numbers, through putting practical measures in place and through reassuring people that all that can be done has been? I think so, while recognising that for some leaders the practical side may be easier than ensuring people are reassured.

A more general question to consider is will there be people who are scared of coming back, people who are anxious about this? From our discussions the general feeling was that yes, there will be people who feel this way but the hope is that this will be a transient feeling, as people start to get back to the workplace they will see things are in place, they will see their colleagues working to these new ways and they will, in turn, feel more confident. This fear may well come from the fact that working from home, or being furloughed, has been the ‘new norm’ for many people and people are in safe ‘bubble’ that they feel in control of. Going back to the workplace changes this, with a whole set on unknowns about the workplace and colleagues.

As leaders, it is important that we take time to rebuild the trust that used to exist for the workspace. While it might sound strange to talk about trust in the office being reduced by working from home, the last few months have changed our relationship with a lot of spaces we used to frequent, and we have be subjected to a lot of messaging that has told us to stay away from some places where we used to spend a lot of time. For some people trust will take some time to return.

The office used to be a safe place. Firstly, it was probably a clean space that we did not associate as being a risk to personal health. It was a place where we accepted that we had to cohabit with other people, sharing facilities, working with different groups and using different spaces. We also knew how it worked, the social rules governing the workplace are so clearly defined that most of us have never even had to think about them. All of this has changed. The workplace is now dangerous, it may cause us to interact with people who might make us ill. While four months ago someone sitting at your desk might have felt inconvenient, it wasn’t really a problem. Now the desk may need to be cleaned. For most people, the office has become a foreign place, we no longer know how it works.

To rebuild trust we need to focus on the logic and rules (cognitive trust) and the interaction between people and the feelings that this may create (affective trust). The rational part of this will be easy for most leaders, detailing the new rules, signs on the floor, one-way systems and limits to the numbers of people in at any time.

The affective trust required is more complex. To rebuild this we need our teams to know that we understand their anxiety in coming back, creating psychological safety around the first visit back (such as a trial return). Leaders need to be responsive to the inevitable incidents that will occur, especially around social distancing measures. If we can role model the new behaviours and quickly deal with rule breakers, we can help our teams normalise the new working rules and quickly restore trust in the office.

Should all change be done quickly?

Many organisations discovered that they can introduce significant change rapidly when they had to reorganise their workforce to being home-based.  Does this mean that all change should be quick?

Paul, Rob and Rich explore why this change has worked so well, and ask what are the lessons we can learn from this for future change.

This podcast was recorded while we are still in lockdown.  Like most people, we are working from home (kids and pets may appear at any time).  Apologies for the quality of one of the mics on this podcast. The perils of working without a producer.

We are still focused on the questions that are getting in the way.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Is the pandemic an excuse to put things off?

The pandemic makes working life really difficult for many people, making even the simplest of decisions far more complex. However, it is also an easy excuse to put off the things that we don’t want to tackle. It enables us to create an argument that these things need to be parked until we return to normal, but that could be a long way off; can these issues really wait.

Ricky gets Paul to explain why we do this, and what strategies can support us to take action now, even if it does make us feel uncomfortable.

This podcast was recorded while we are still in lockdown.  Like most people, we are working from home (kids and pets may appear at any time).  We are still focused on the questions that are getting in the way.

Photo by Jonathan Farber on Unsplash