Right now, leaders need to be “dealers of hope”​ – RTW during COVID-19

Right now, leaders need to be “dealers of hope”​ – RTW during COVID-19

After months of working from home, many people in Australia will be returning to the office, or their place of work, in the coming weeks. 

Safety is a core human need, coming straight after food and shelter. Your team may therefore not be ready or able to perform just because their basic physical needs are met, especially in an environment of uncertainty and fear. Your people need more than that – they need to feel safe, mentally and emotionally.

We all respond differently to crisis. Some of us switch into “action” mode and become more transactional in how we interact with others. Some of us go quiet and withdraw. Times of crisis can provide some of the most important opportunities to deepen trust and commitment with employees in ways that not only ensure greater wellbeing for employees, but also positions the organisation to recover when the crisis is over.

Psychological safety covers three basic human needs: fulfillment, belonging, and security. That’s what makes it so powerful when it’s present and so dangerous when it’s not. What do leaders need to consider before returning teams physically to the workplace and defining a strategy for the longer term amidst a high degree of ongoing uncertainty?

Make it a safe place to work.

Upon returning to work after COVID-19, health and safety should be your biggest focus. The first step is ensuring the physical workplace is safe to work in. Think about hiring a cleaning service to deep clean the entire office. A deep clean will put employees’ minds at ease and make the office fresh and sparkling for their return. Increase the standards of daily cleaning for your office. After cleaning the workplace, it’s important to encourage employees to keep it safe and healthy. Put up information in common areas about cough/sneeze etiquette (into a tissue or elbow), social distancing reminders, hand washing practices, not coming into work when they feel ill and COVID-19 symptoms. Lastly, make it easy for employees to follow good hygiene practices by ensuring plenty of supplies are available (disinfectant wipes and/or spray, hand sanitiser, hand soap, paper towels, tissues). Keep disinfectant in common areas so employees can wipe down counters, door handles, elevator buttons and appliances after use. Place hand sanitiser around the office or quick disinfecting when employees can’t wash their hands.

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Update Policies and Procedures

Dealing with reluctance to give up remote working will be one of the biggest challenges for HR teams. To ease the transition:

  • Be flexible with work hours for the first few weeks
  • Encourage discussion of revised performance metrics and deliverables
  • Provide employees with a list of productivity resources to get them back to their routine
  • If their job allows it, let employees work remotely for longer if they are anxious
  • Look at sustaining partial remote work where appropriate

Employers should anticipate that social distancing measures may be revisited by the Government should the need arise, for example, as a result of a second spike of COVID-19 infection. Employers should ensure they have a plan in place in case they need to re-close business premises and/or require employees to work from home again.

Some key questions to consider:

  1. Managing access to the workplace (building or workplace access; lifts; reception)? Will numbers be counted and if so, who will be responsible for the monitoring of access? Will temperature be checked?
  2. How will social distancing measures be addressed in offices, working spaces, meeting rooms, walkways, lifts, tea rooms, kitchens, toilets, etc.? How will tasks that challenge physical distancing be managed?
  3. What kind of cleaning protocols will be used? Who will do the cleaning? If plant/equipment is shared, how will it be cleaned and by whom? What about high-touch items? What kind of instruction and training will be provided to workers on cleaning and worker hygiene measures?
  4. How will you effectively consult and communicate prior to and during the return phase if there are different start/finish times, rotating teams and others working from home?
  5. How will you support good mental health where there may be increased general anxiety connected with COVID-19 both due to work changes (e.g. changed work conditions) and change in personal circumstances?


In times of crisis, we know that leaders:

  • Don’t have all the facts
  • Can’t remove all risk
  • Can’t promise zero loss
  • Can’t eliminate all the pain

Take the pressure off your teams. Productivity drops make employees feel uneasy too. We need to normalise stress as an adaptive response to these uncertain times. Acknowledge that you anticipate that business might slow and employees will be less productive for a period of time. Recognising that your employees are human and that they will be more distracted right now, will create more psychological safety. Set expectations about failure, uncertainty, and interdependence. Ask staff to speak up. Say things like: We’ve never faced anything like this before so there are a lot of gaps in what we know. We need to hear from everyone. If you’re worried, please speak up.

Practice active, frequent and honest communication and keep employees informed about important issues and changes, while ensuring leaders and managers are accessible for questions and willing to give straight answers. Still be clear on behavioural standards and ensure they are shared, understood, and consistently applied. Sanction clear violations. Say things like: We always treat each other with dignity and respect, especially when things are tough.

Try to host meetings sometimes without an agenda with no order of business but to share feelings or concerns. This time can provide mental relief for your team – a space to connect about non-work related matters. You could even involve people from other teams, creating a stronger sense of cohesion across the organisation. 

Mental Health

According to Marketwatch, during the first week of April, nearly 70% of U.S. workers identified this as the most stressful time of their professional careers, and 94% of workers reported losing one or more hours a day in productivity. Even before COVID-19, in 2019 the World Health Organisation estimated that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.

Employers should revisit and recommunicate their strategy for supporting employee mental health. Many employees are feeling unsettled or uncertain during this time, so employers must ensure everyone in their organisation feels safe, informed, and supported:

  • Promote your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and normalise access to counselling services. Consider establishing an EAP if you do not have one. 
  • Provide web-based mental health services. Offer employees telehealth sessions including training in resilience and wellbeing.
  • Offer online self-guided mental health programs. research has found that self-guided mental health interventions are effective at reducing stress.
  • Maintaining workplace wellbeing information in a central hub such as an intranet website.
  • Acknowledging employees’ feelings about COVID-19 and consult them about their perceptions of risks to psychological health.
  • Take steps to identify the risks of family and domestic violence, such as providing a safe environment for disclosure, ensuring confidentiality and not requiring employees to divulge unnecessary personal details. Employers should consider circulating a family and domestic violence policy, which may need to be adapted to accommodate for the circumstances of COVID-19. If it is not possible for an employee to be safe at home, an alternative work environment must be provided, so far as reasonably practicable.

Caring during a crisis

In moments like this, every interaction we have is telling a story about our leadership. Being vulnerable is one of the most courageous things you can do as a leader. Engagement is going to require concerted effort and attention from leaders to build and retain trust and engender a sense of purpose and worth in their teams. Perhaps most importantly, in the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, leaders need to be dealers of hope.

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Leading during COVID-19 will require sustained energy in the face of disappointment. Passion to try again and persistence to press through obstacles. Boldness during uncertainty and endurance when it is tempting to quit. Belief precedes hope so give people something to believe in. Connect effort and sacrifice to the big picture. John W. Gardner said, “The first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive—the hope that we can finally find our way through to a better world—despite the day’s action, despite our own inertness, shallowness, and wavering resolve.”

Hope does not make a bad idea better. But hope can make a great idea possible. What and how will take you down when hope is fading. Keep the Why front and centre. Why keeps everyone at the table until what and how can be figured out. Focus just on what and how and you will lose heart. Focus on why and you will unite and keep going. We are in for a long and bumpy ride through COVID-19. Now more than ever, we need brave leaders, dealers of hope, who can inspire, engage and genuinely care. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

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