Patrick Gallen

By Patrick Gallen, Partner, People and Change Consulting, Grant Thornton Ireland

Comparisons are often made between the role of a business leader and the conductor of an orchestra. The conductor does not play an instrument, or indeed make a sound, and yet they are absolutely responsible for bringing together the various individuals and sections in the orchestra to create something wonderful.

In planning the return to work following weeks of lockdown, business leaders will empathise with the conductor like never before, as they hold the baton and are responsible for bringing different groups together to facilitate not only the office reopening but the longer-term changes required to adapt to the new normal.

Performance is impacted by change. When people get distracted by what is changing around them, when they are unclear, confused, or feel insecure, they lose focus, and this has a negative impact on performance. However, change, when done well, can bring opportunity. When approached with thoughtful planning and meaningful engagement, the changes can provide the opportunity to ‘build back better’.

There will be several phases the leader will have to orchestrate over the coming months; Anticipation, Honeymoon, Integration, Performance, and Growth. Each phase is important to positively impact performance – or risk a drop in performance that we call ‘the COVID-19 Performance Gap’.

Let’s take a look at the critical first phase – Anticipation. Within this phase there are three key steps; Preparation, Execution, and Reopening. Let’s look at the practical considerations for each, to orchestrate this phase successfully.

Preparation. No doubt your business has been holding COVID Committee meetings throughout the crisis. Now that it is, thankfully, time to focus on reopening, the committee should consider engaging with staff to understand how they will return to work after working from home or being furloughed for over eight weeks.

A staff survey will provide many insights; how employees typically travel to work, the distance they live from the office, their preferred work location, how often they would prefer to be in the office, how they feel about flexible work times, and any health considerations for themselves or immediate family.

Understanding how your employees are feeling is a vital piece of information to consider in your planning. The leadership team can use this information to create a Return to Work Plan.

Execution: Considerations in this stage include; an induction programme for employees so that they know what to expect when they do return; a symptom questionnaire, social distancing marshals, new processes and procedures, signage…the list is long. Anticipating and planning in advance will help leaders to ensure they have thought through the practicalities of the execution.

Reopening: When the big day comes (and this may happen gradually over a period of days or weeks), it is important to manage both employee and customer expectations, having marshals trained to ensure compliance in each location, and a review process to learn what is going well and what needs to be amended.

This is uncharted water for everyone, and leaders must acknowledge that it is also a learning process. Most companies will realise that it is much easier to close an office than reopen one!

Each of the five phases will have individual steps and require careful planning but will pay dividends over what we anticipate is a six-to-seven-month period. As the conductor, the business leader will bring together teams from throughout the organisation to each play their part, in creating a production that works.

In this new normal, there is every chance that it could even sound better than before. And that will be music to everyone’s ears.