Stuck in the middle: How today’s leaders are navigating the transition back to the office, while honoring their team members’ needs and the business needs
You’ve likely seen illustrations that depict the sandwich generation, where many are caring for aging parents at the same time as raising their own young kids. This sandwich is reminding me of a dynamic at play with today’s leaders. Leaders are stuck in the middle between what their team members are asking for and what their company is mandating. As many organizations are returning to the office, and in some cases mandating in-person office and meeting time, leaders are looking to honor what their employees want and need, and adhere to the company policies. The transition back to the office is causing leaders pressure to lean into what feels like competing needs.
How do you hold that balance between what employees are asking for and what the organization needs? This balancing act is not unique to the transition back to the office after months of telework. And it’s not new to leaders. It also shows up in career conversations, where you have to find that sweet spot between an employee’s talents and passions and the direction of the business. Yet a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, our resources are spent.
Stuck in the middle is not a good place to be, but how are the best leaders handling it?
Polarity Map: Here’s a tool that can help.
I have shared before how polarity thinking can help you navigate a situation in which there are seemingly two opposing forces or poles. Knowing how to identify the polarity, and understanding the upsides and downsides of each pole, will help you lead through the tensions.
As you consider the company policy, the poles may be Customization and Standardization.
On the one hand, you run the risk of making too many exceptions for individual team members, and on the other hand, you run the risk of being too rigid and adhering to the rules for the sake of the rules.
Every employee’s situation is unique, and may require some customization or flexwork arrangement. Sometimes you need to advocate for the team member, and push back on the policy. Other times, you may need to help coach someone out, if they are no longer a fit for the organization. Knowing the polarities at play will help you navigate the situation.
Here are some considerations…
As with so many leadership challenges, it starts with asking the right questions. Leaders need to get curious. Ask questions re their team member’s individual needs, and how they are working best, in what environment. Some people can’t wait to go back to the office. Others have a stomachache just thinking about it. Get in tune with each person’s needs.
Many companies are writing clear and precise policies about returning to the office. Behind these policies is an attempt to demonstrate and help ensure the team can get the work done, safely. Familiarize yourself with these policies and understand why they’re in place. Talk with your senior leaders if you disagree with an approach and ensure you’re aligned with your management team.
Beware of the traps!
If you are overly focused on one or the other of the poles, you are going to be at risk of falling into a trap. As I work with leaders during this time of re-entry to the office, here are some of the traps I have been hearing about:
1. Making Magic
What I have heard: Many companies are now requiring that their employees return to the office. With this new emphasis on standardization, some employees are resisting and feeling a lack of concern for their individual needs. They’re pushing back and saying that there must be a “reason” to meet in person, and expecting the leader to make it “worth their while.” Managers have said they’re now feeling this new pressure to come up with the magic formula to keep employees satisfied when working in-person.
What you can do: Lean into customization...but not too far. Don’t fall into the trap that you, as the leader, have to come up with the magic plan to make it worth their while AND honor the fact that they are expecting customization in how they now operate as a team in-person. Instead, work in partnership with your employees to create a customized plan. Ask what they need to make it worth their while (customization), and ask them to contribute the process, too. Perhaps your team decides to have designated outdoor collaboration sites or they want to arrange potluck lunches. Whatever the plan is, develop it together and share the responsibility for the customized workplace they desire.
2. No Time to Meet
What I have heard: Another potential risk is making too many exceptions for individuals on the team. If you’re over-accommodating to the needs of individuals, you may end up in a situation where no one can schedule a meeting because everyone has a unique schedule, with no overlapping time between 9 to 5. This may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s a real example.
What you can do: Lean into standardization. Let the team know the boundaries and expectations and the importance of creating standards across the team in order to be most productive. Engage with the entire team to set team agreements on what will work best across the team. They may decide that everyone comes in on Wednesdays or when you’re off the clock, you make exceptions to attend certain meetings. The more the team engages to develop these agreements, the more likely it’ll stick.
If you’re feeling stuck in the middle, the polarity map can be a great tool to help you get unstuck. Draw a sideways figure eight on a paper and jot down your own pressures and fears. Think about the questions you can ask to help get clarity and to help find the right balance.
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