The Pandemic Created New Workplace Tribes. Here’s How to Unite Them
Illustration by Oscar Bolton Green for Bloomberg Businessweek. 

The Pandemic Created New Workplace Tribes. Here’s How to Unite Them

After months of juggling the demands of her job while home-schooling two under-10s, a friend who’s a partner at a big London media agency now must bridge the gap between two new workplace tribes: those who toiled throughout the lockdown and those who were on government-subsidized furlough.

A member of my friend’s team, out on full pay since March, rankled at a company diktat requiring the use of a portion of annual leave during the furlough. My friend was sticking to the rules, she told me, but also sticking up for the 85% of employees who had to work through the lockdown. There’s now a perception internally that people who weren’t in the office don’t understand how tough it was for those who kept working. Returnees taking vacation days this summer could foster resentment, says my friend, who requested anonymity to talk about internal workplace issues.

As millions of furloughed employees rejoin their teams, many managers will face similar situations. Dealing with those concerns will require clear messaging about how things changed while these people were away, as well as what’s expected of them upon their return, says Maire Kerrin, director of the Work Psychology Group, a U.K. research and consulting firm. “In organizations where that communication hasn’t happened, people who’ve been on furlough will come back in and they’ll get an awful shock,” she says.

It’s easy for the two sides to view each other with suspicion, with both thinking the other doesn’t fully appreciate the hard times they’ve been through. “Survivors” may have struggled under increasing pressure, while many of those placed on furlough are now coming to terms with a new status in their workplace.

The ongoing reality of remote working adds another layer of complexity, says Andy Yap, professor of organizational behavior at Insead business school. With everyone sitting on the couch or at the kitchen table, much communication happens in secret, hidden away in emails and instant messages. “We don’t know who is talking to whom, we can’t infer the political system,” Yap says. “We are stressed, tired, and worried.”

For managers dealing with these complications, here are some strategies to reduce the tension: 

  • Move beyond petty jealousies. The past few months have threatened everyone’s identities and required us all to work in ways few ever expected, says Helen Tupper, co-founder of career development agency Amazing If. “We’ve been operating as individuals,” she says. “Managers have a responsibility to the collective, and they need to bring that back together.”
  • Spread the load. If companies convene a crisis group, varying membership between tribes can ensure that decision-making isn’t overly centralized, Yap says.  
  • Have a reintegration plan. Returning to work after furlough is like coming back from maternity or sick leave, and the “psychological contract” between employer and employee needs to be reestablished, says Kerrin. Evidence shows those who stay in touch with the office during leave have a less disruptive return.
  • Be clear about goals. Many team leaders ripped up business plans in the spring. Managers must ensure that staff are clued in on the changes, as everyone will need to buy into what could be a very different mission for the rest of the year.
  • Connect and empathize. Companies and managers must make remote working less transactional and more “experiential,” Tupper says, fostering meaningful connections. These might include socially distanced team-building efforts such as the podcast club set up by staff at one financial-services firm. 
  • Don’t sideline personal development. While budgets may be tight and workloads heavy, it’s a mistake to ignore the more reflective side of things. Training and programs to promote resilience and team cohesion remain important, especially at a time when other sweeteners such as pay increases will likely be off the table.

Rebecca Earnshaw, chief executive officer of London educational charity Voice21, says that while the past few months have been dramatic, what managers needed to do was “in some ways quite straightforward.” As the economy slowly unfolds from its cocoon and we enter periods of recovery interspersed with possible second-wave lockdowns and disruptions, the playbook is less clear. “Now it’s much more complex and nuanced,” says Earnshaw, who furloughed a majority of her 20 staff when the crisis hit and still has seven not back at work. “There’s no template.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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