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Tips for managers welcoming staff back

28 May 2020 | Carolyne Crowe | COVID-19 | Wellbeing

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Carolyne Crowe and Elly Russell from VDS Training offer some tips for welcoming furloughed staff back to work.

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As the country starts edging its way out of lockdown, many veterinary practices will be considering welcoming furloughed staff back to the coal face.  That coal face may look very, very different from the one these team members left behind as lockdown came into effect and supporting staff back into work presents a major challenge for practices. How practices manage this next transition will have a big impact both on staff re-joining the frontline and on the staff who never left. Ultimately, the ability of practices to reintegrate their teams successfully will determine how well they recover and if they are able to build a bridge from this crisis to a brighter, productive future.

Sadly, there will be no simple, single formula leaders can apply to this situation.  A first, crucial step will be to understand the range and diversity of experiences present within the team: we might all be in the same storm, but our boats have all looked, and continue to look, very different.

Listening to furloughed staff over the last few weeks it is clear some feel thankful to have been furloughed, appreciating the financial support and time at home.  Others feel upset, vulnerable, or even angry about why they were chosen for furlough. Are they not needed? Did the team cope just fine without them?  Those who have continued to work might feel resentful of those that have had time off whilst they themselves have struggled through childcare or other issues to continue getting into work.  For some, their outlook on life may have drastically changed: what they value and prioritise permanently shifted by the tide of change and tragically other’s lives will have changed forever due to the loss of a loved one.

So how can leaders cope with teams whose experiences may be very polarised? Psychological safety, an environment in which people feel safe to share their experiences, concerns and ideas without fear of judgement or repercussions will be crucial. Many of us dislike conflict and confrontation or fear we may upset people by sharing our views. In the short run, not saying anything may feel safest.  In the long run this undermines trust and team cohesion: unheard concerns, mismatched expectations and unresolved conflict can all lead to bigger problems down the line as they drive unhelpful behaviours and leave people isolated in their thoughts, feeling unsupported.  Amy Edmondson describes three steps leaders can take to build a psychologically safe workplace. First, frame the reality of your workplace with humility – be open and clear about uncertainties, challenges, and unknowns. Second, be curious – invite staff to engage with you, telling you their ideas and concerns. Third, respond productively and with empathy – demonstrate you see their viewpoint and focus on forward looking problem solving rather than judging suggestions as  ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

A second crucial step is to ensure you set aside time to share new ways of working with returning staff.  The rules of engagement have changed beyond all recognition and there will be many procedures, protocols and routines that may be unfamiliar and challenging for furloughed staff coming back.  Clear, timely and sufficient information about new ways of working must be shared with those re-joining the team. But again, there may be more issues and challenges lurking beneath the surface here that successful leaders will navigate carefully. 

Returning staff may have questions or concerns about how new ways of working were decided upon. How do they feel about social distancing or PPE guidelines that have been instituted? Do they agree with the clinical approach being taken, for example how are decisions about what vaccinations and routine procedures should be done made? Staff who have been working on the frontline may have already navigated through challenges such as concerns for their own and their families safety given contact with the public and ethical or moral dilemmas arising from the inability to manage cases as they would normally choose.  This is all new territory for furloughed staff and leaders should recognise this, give time and space for staff to share worries they have and endeavour to be as clear, transparent, and open about how and why decisions to change procedures where made.

Those who were furloughed may feel vulnerable about new skills such as remote consulting that they worry have passed them by. It might be easy for staff who have been actively involved in delivering the new way of working to appear ‘experts’ in Covid-style veterinary care. Use the knowledge and experience gained by those who have been working to address gaps in skills for those returning, but balance this by emphasising how those returning are valued. You might achieve this by inviting their input on changes that have been made. Does the reality of how work is getting done match their expectations? Do they have fresh insight or a different take on what might work moving forward?  Continue to foster a culture that recognises different perspectives a valuable, demonstrating to your team that everyone’s voice is ‘mission critical’ for the business to not only survive but thrive in these challenging waters.

Finally, think about ways to get everyone on the same page. Teams that hold a ‘shared mental model’ of how work will be delivered and a shared understanding of the challenges they are up against function well.  Huddles or briefings – short, 5-minute focused catch ups for the team at the start and end of the day can be hugely helpful in creating and maintaining this.  This is especially important now to allow teams to recognise and respond to different energy levels: keen, rested raring to go returners can support flagging front liners who might be heading towards burnout and compassion fatigue.

Leaders who are able to hold space for these multiple different experiences and perspectives and who bind their teams together around a shared purpose will reap the rewards of more flexible, adaptable, cohesive teams able to sail their ship across the choppy COVID waters to a successful future.

This can all seem rather daunting but you are not alone, at VDST we are running weekly group coaching sessions for leaders, creating a safe space to learn, share challenges and bounce ideas off each other.

If you would like to be part of this group then find out more on the VDS Training website or drop me an email at [email protected] and ask about the Leadership SOS programme.

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