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The Many Faces of Workplace Re-Entry


Cara Valentino

Date Published

Sep 13, 2021
8 minute read

At The Clearing, we focus on the human side of change. And what we’ve learned in working with government and private sector leaders over the past two decades is this: change is hard.

“As we plan for ‘re-entry’ into normal-ish conditions post-pandemic, we’re seeing a rainbow of reactions to the prospects of going back to ‘normal.’”

However, we’ve also learned that staying stagnant is worse – and potentially even deadly – for an organization. What’s required for an organization to remain successful is that it adapts to shocks and stressors over time in a healthy way.

Right now, as we plan for “re-entry” into normal-ish conditions post-pandemic, we’re seeing a rainbow of reactions to the prospects of going back to “normal.” And, as your organization begins to move toward “normal” operating conditions, the following list might help identify some of your teams’ re-entry styles. In fact, you could even call them archetypes:

  • Rejoicing: Individuals who are gleefully awaiting the opportunity to once again sit next to strangers at an airport and listen to their life stories. These folks would come to the office in a hazmat suit if it meant that they could be around humans and in “normal” working conditions once more.
  • Resuming: Individuals who didn’t even notice a blip on their radar during the pre-vaccine pandemic. These are the kinds of people who swiftly and gracefully lift their laptops off a table after someone spills a large drink on said table – and continue working on the laptop as if nothing happened.
  • Reluctance: Hello, “cave syndrome.” These are the folks who loved an opportunity to work remotely, petting the cat and making the perfect cup of coffee every day. Now they shake at the idea of “hoteling” next to their colleagues once again and sharing the corporate Keurig.
  • Rejection: Individuals who not only fear a return to normalcy but avidly dislike it. Resuming the use of crowded highways, subways, or sidewalks, and waiting in lines is creating moments of panic, frustration, and/or anger. These are the kinds of individuals who live in a tourist town like DC and shake a fist annually at the Cherry Blossoms for causing “tourist season” (i.e., me).

“We focus on the human side of change. And what we’ve learned in working with government and private sector leaders over the past two decades is this: change is terrible.”

So what do you – as a leader – do with a group of people who sit across this spectrum when you need the organization to return to “normal” working conditions?

In the words of every frustrating professor, therapist, consultant, and parent ever: “it depends”. First, read my colleague Jason’s advice on ensuring inclusivity in re-entry. Then take a look at the following recommendations based on our firm’s approach to building a resilient culture at a management consulting company. (I call them the ‘6 Ps’.)

And don’t worry, each of these recommendations is designed to appeal to the full spectrum of individuals who are on your teams – from the rejoicers to the rejectionists. So, you, as a leader, can rejoice.

1. Return to

Steeping your re-entry plans in the mission, vision, and values of your organization drives greater adoption by those who joined to do that specific work. It also clearly signals the impact and value that “normal” working conditions will have on your clients, community, and/or the world, depending on your mission.

Why? Studies show that individuals with a connection to purpose experience increases in leadership effectiveness, fulfillment, engagement, and productivity.

Practice: In corporate-wide settings such as events and communications (e.g., newsletters, Slack messages, etc.) consider:

  • Sharing project case studies or client experiences at corporate-wide events that highlight company purpose
  • Highlighting a value and associated practices each month
  • Acknowledging and incentivizing team members that have demonstrated values

2. Pilot short-term operating principles.

Identify a set of operating principles for your organization that you’ll pilot and revisit within 90-120 days. Some ideas for these operating principles: (1) Put your people first. (2) Assess clients’ progress and preferences. (3) Increase autonomy and decision-making at the front-line management level. These are especially useful for newer individuals at the company who may not be as familiar with explicit norms.

Why? Flexible operating principles provide short sprints to give insights into what’s actually working on the ground during re-entry to allow for rapid pivots as needed.

Practice: To develop and implement these operating principles consider:

  • Bringing together a diverse group of individuals across levels at the company to develop principles
  • Provide a shared template or language of these principles and disseminate them broadly across the company with example practices
  • Ask for feedback on the operating principles and re-visit on an ongoing basis

3. Strengthen and widen the connection with your people.

These are the moments to overcommunicate. (Really, when *shouldn’t* you overcommunicate?) Identify the social networks in your organization and celebrate/advance the informal leaders who helped to translate and build bridges during the quarantine. This team is your superpower to create a cohesive, post-quarantine environment, even among those who reject re-entry. Create new connections between your senior teams and these informal leaders.

Why? Your business is your people. It’s as simple as that.

Practice: To celebrate and advance the social networks and informal leaders across the company consider:

  • Connecting informal leaders throughout the company that may not be interacting with one another on a regular basis
  • Ask for ongoing feedback from informal leaders on what they are seeing across the organization
  • Understand how your staff likes to be acknowledged and follow through on their preferences and support your team leaders in doing the same to ensure equity across the organization

4. Refine your processes.

Now is the time to review and adapt your organizational processes. What worked during quarantine? What gaps did it illuminate?

Why? Poor or cumbersome processes cause conflict and might be one reason (of many) for reticence to return to “normal” and all it entailed pre-quarantine.

Practice: One simple step: with your senior teams and frontline managers, run a START-STOP-CONTINUE exercise on major processes.


5. Create a 90/120-day plan.

With new clarity on purpose, principles, people, and processes, it’s time to build a short-term and focused action plan with clear owners, actions, and success measures to determine how re-entry is shaping up and what changes you need to make in your next sprint.

Why? Agile planning allows a shared perspective on what’s happening, built-in flexibility, and the opportunity to learn from failures. It also establishes clarity on what matters most to the organization over periods of time.

Practice: Once you have your action plan in place, create the team and cadence to revisit the plan on an ongoing basis to ensure milestones are met.


6. Establish daily practices.

Help teams to build daily practices, like regular check-ins (“What’s hard? What’s in your way?”), new operating hours, where feasible; and new wellness strategies. Over time, assess what worked and didn’t to create new organizational norms.

Why? Small moves have the biggest impact on your organization’s culture, wellbeing, and resilience. They also point to where new organizational muscles need to be built.

Practice: Meet with your core management and project team leaders to determine which practices they are performing regularly with their teams and which ones would be beneficial to STOP, START, and CONTINUE.

About The Clearing’s resilience work: When you can’t avoid a long-term set of shocks and stressors – say, as just a wild example, there’s a global pandemic and everything about your organization changes – our approach to resilience can help. Notably, our approach to resilience can be used before there is a need to bounce back. These core tenets can help individuals and organizations to build better leading, managing, and resolution skills that can mitigate shocks and stressors – and make our organizations more prepared without having to experience the traumatic events or the resultant side effects.

Want to learn more about comprehensive strategies for re-entry, resilience, and readiness? Connect with us at