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As lockdown in the UK starts to ease for some sectors of the economy, business leaders are having to face tough decisions about how to move forward under current social distancing restrictions.

For some, this could mean devastating choices about letting staff go, closing premises permanently or proposing significant restructures to the business. Among office-based companies, the next big decision may be whether to continue working from home arrangements, or to start bringing staff back into the workplace.

The advice from the UK government has been unswervingly clear: if your employees are able to work effectively from home, you should allow them to continue to do so. But some companies may not be able to complete certain business functions remotely, so will feel they have a genuine need to start moving at least some staff back into the workplace.

With the coronavirus pandemic still far from over, it is understandable that some staff may be anxious about returning to enclosed spaces to work. If you believe that the move is strictly necessary for the health of the business, the way in which you communicate your decision will be crucial to keeping staff positively motivated.

Assuming that you have made the required accommodations for any employees who are shielding or high-risk (check the government guidelines to be clear on this), the first thing you must do is clearly demonstrate that you take their safety seriously by implementing all the social distancing measures required by law.

When announcing your decision, make your message clear. Even if you suspect that it will be met with anxiety, don’t muddy the water with softening language that could be misleading. Managers will command more respect if they are honest from the outset, even about unpopular decisions.

Take the time to explain your thought process..

State the reasons for your decision. When businesses are going through a difficult time, a lack of transparency and communication is guaranteed to negatively impact staff morale. Even if people don’t agree with your decision, taking the time to explain your thought process shows that you respect your staff enough to help them understand it. Essentially telling your team to “like it or lump it” will do nothing to encourage trust and collaborative spirit.

Invite questions and listen to your employees’ comments. You can do this – without allowing your decision to turn into a debate – if you acknowledge areas of concern, give honest answers and are open to hearing something you may not have previously considered. In a rapidly evolving global crisis, staff may be happier if you commit to reviewing your decision at set intervals. Shouting down queries or being inflexible will make your team feel as if they’re not being heard. There is a difference between standing firmly behind your decision and being viewed as a brick wall.

Another benefit of offering a genuinely listening ear is that staff will be encouraged to come directly to you with problems or complaints, rather than venting among themselves and possibly spreading negativity.

So, the conclusion is: say what you mean and mean what you say. As a leader, your actions could be the glue that holds teams together as we ride out this unprecedented crisis.

Mark Fryer

19th June 2020

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