Ben Dalton, MBA ’20, is an 11-year US Army veteran and lives with his wife and two children in Ballwin, Missouri. He taught leadership psychology at the US Military Academy.
In the rush to separate because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams were not prepared to be apart for this long. Co-workers are immersed in their home life more than ever before and have to act like a team at home rather than the touch-and-go points through calls, Zooms meetings, emails, etc.
With the new normal that has lasted more than a few weeks (and as long as two months for some), your work team has established new norms and practices that are either universally accepted or adequate for now until the business and team get back to steady state. When the moment arrives to return to a new normalcy, old norms and new norms must be reconciled. The time to plan team reintegration is now.
I lay out five topics to think about as teams reintegrate. Those areas of focus include: maintaining digital systems, setting clear expectations, planning gatherings for smaller teams, providing mental and physical support, and updating work-from-home plans and policies.
I first heard the term “reintegration” when I was preparing for return from my first deployment.
I was told I would be spending the first 10 days in Colorado Springs, Colorado, upon returning from Iraq—a scheduled plan 4,000-plus soldiers would also follow. The plan involved some time off, some classes to talk about the rules back at home, couples’ classes for those with significant others and medical screening.
The Army protected its human capital by investing in opportunities to transition from deployment to home-state operations. Rather than soldiers paying for their own therapy or classes upon return, the Army spent money to build this reintegration plan and provide additional resources to soldiers (behavioral health clinical support and new equipment).
Similarly, the return to school during a normal year when students return from winter break or summer vacation can create similar problems. When I was a student teacher in college, my first-graders hated coming in from recess. But there was a plan to redirect their attention.
Reintegrating a team into a new normal allows you to protect your human capital. How much focus each of these five topics requires depends on how a team operated or practiced their team norms.
Maintain digital systems
My neighbors are spread across a few industries. They have set up workspace in their homes in order to get work done now—with a few kids running around. Not everyone is coming back to the office on the same day. Teams using digital platforms or conference call numbers should continue to do so for some time. Adding the Zoom link or the conference number, even when just one team member is not yet back in the office, will allay any fear of being the odd person out.
A Gartner survey sampling CFOs found that more than 70% intend to have some employees permanently work from home post COVID-19. Individuals who stay remote will look for assurance that they are still fully integrated with the team.
Set clear expectations
Employees have been dealing with many different scenarios in their remote workplaces. The team leader will be responsible for ensuring the team gets back to producing at pre-COVID-19 levels.
Setting clear expectations early and often will open up the conversation.
One approach: Take stock of where the team member is starting. Ask about their remote setting. What detracted from or enhanced their focus and work effort? Then, adjust and align their priorities with team goals.
A few of these conversations may need to happen due to changing strategy or operations within the overall company. This is also a good time to align a teammate’s roles and responsibilities with the company and the team. Do they make sense? Is the teammate doing a different job than they were hired for? To set them up for success, make changes now, while a teammate is in transition. I advocate matching roles and responsibilities to what the teammate is actually doing, not returning to the original roles and responsibilities.
Plan gatherings for smaller teams
As teams come back together, they will want to celebrate. After my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, my unit always threw a big party a few weeks after everyone returned to celebrate being home—among other things. Given the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and limitations on groups of more than 10, a big party may not be possible.
Regardless, most are looking forward to seeing someone other than their family. The plan can be simple. Be sure to include team members only, get input on the details from the team, communicate the plan to outside groups and incorporate time for people to share (if they want). Host this gathering near or at work to get the group back to a team again.
Imagine seven or eight people coming back from a six-week “vacation.” To get the team involved in the gathering, ask where they ate or wished they had while they were at home. If a team supports others within the organization, communicate to stakeholders when no one will be available.
It is important for all team members to join and not have one person stuck at an on-call station.
A teammate may want to share some of the things that occurred that didn’t make it to a Zoom happy hour or email chain. While these opportunities should not be forced, make sure all teammates have the ability to share if they want to. Just remember all teammates might not return to work at the physical office, ensure the timing of the event allows for all teammates to join in the gathering.
Provide mental/physical support
Students at Washington University in St. Louis receive weekly emails with the resources for mental, physical or emotional well-being. Many of these resources existed before the global pandemic, some are new, and all are accessible wherever a student resides. Some individuals will not be severely affected by COVID-19. Others may be devasted by the loss of family members. This range may continue as individuals return to a common workplace. Team leaders should keep the individual reaction in mind when planning for resources.
Leaders might allow some to work from home more frequently to slowly transition back into the office. If a teammate needs more time because they are uncomfortable with the situation they are in, work a plan to ensure the teammate can get their work done and feel supported. Restate the available resources—not just through email—to ensure people who need help will see it.
Update work-from-home policies
In the Army, after an event is completed, troops conduct an after-action review to determine what went well and what can be improved. Chances are teams and businesses are updating as they go and establishing new rules over time. If work-from-home becomes necessary again, a plan could already be established based on this experience. It may be time to update policies that did not work for remote work or to allow more of employees to work remotely.
As the team leader, solicit feedback from the team or one-on-one: What good came out of the team? What needed improvement? Focus on team improvement, not individuals. Assign teams to design fixes or solutions to the problems and report back. Share best practices with the organization and senior leadership. Publish policy updates to ensure teammates are on the same page.
While these are some ways to start thinking about team reintegration, a team leader should know their team best and decide how to prepare for the comeback.