Back to Work

'Welcome Back' written in a cup of coffee
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How to re-engage your team post lockdown.

The excitement is palpable. There is so much pent up demand, and still lots to do before reopening. But…

How long have your team been on furlough? Whether it’s 12 months or only four, it’s still a long time to be away from work. And it would be naïve to think they can just pick up where they left off.

Not only is it going to be a bit of a shock to the system getting back into a routine from a physical perspective, but there’ll be some emotional needs to address too. One of the questions I’m most frequently asked, is “how do I keep my employees engaged?”. And that’s in ‘normal’ circumstances, let alone after everything Covid has thrown at us in the past 12 months.

There will be plenty who are just itching to get back to work, to see their workmates, to get back to some kind of routine. But this will no doubt be tinged by other emotions. While many are simply relieved to have a job to come back to, they may still have concerns for the long-term future of their role. And, if you’ve had to make any redundancies, some of these people will also experience some “survivors’ guilt”.

Some may be uncomfortable about changes to their role, and others anxious about their safety, either within work, or on their journey to work. Many have discovered new interests and other priorities in life, so will they be sad at the prospect of losing the time to continue these? Some may be even questioning whether they want to come back to the same role or come back to work at all.

If we ignore these concerns they can have a big impact, not just on the individual concerned. When this gets picked up by colleagues, it can have a domino effect on how they feel and how engaged they are too. Which ultimately has an impact on productivity and on your customers’ experience.

But there is still plenty to look forward to. Here are two areas to focus on before you re-open so everyone is looking forward to their return and is prepared – both mentally and physically – for their role.


A confidential one-to-one meeting with each of your team members is the first step to help plan for their return. Assuming you are conducting these virtually, choose the medium each person feels most comfortable with.

Unlike a regular one-to-one (which are always important to engage employees at any other time) these won’t be so much on reviewing performance, but will focus on looking forward. Here is the seven step ‘CLEARER’ framework I’ve created:

Your goal here is to relax people so they feel confident to be honest with you about how they are feeling. One of the easiest ways to do this is to ask about – and show an interest in – what they’ve been doing during their time on furlough.

Keep this conversational, it’s not an interrogation. Ask casually about: What have they been up to? What’s been good about their time at home? What will they miss most? Have they taken up any new hobbies or learnt any new skills? Have they discovered or rediscovered things that are important to them or activities they enjoy? Have any of their priorities in life changed as a result of time away from work?

It’s important to discover how they feel about being back. Be prepared for the fact that they may not even want to come back to work, or to come back in the same capacity as before. What concerns do they have, what questions do they have about their role, about changes to the way you’ll be working, about the business?

Some people are very good at putting on a brave face; listen to their tone and any hesitation. If you are on camera or face to face watch their body language. Be mindful of what they don’t say too. Bear in mind there may be things that to you are quite trivial but to them are important, so give them plenty of time; people won’t open up if they feel rushed.

Establish expectations
It’s inevitable that the way you work, and some duties, will have changed. This might present opportunities to restructure, to upskill and cross train people to master new skills, to take on other responsibilities as part of their development.

There may be duties that were once a part of a role but are now less of a priority, so explain why this is. If these were tasks they did well or took a particular pride in doing, be sensitive to how you handle this. You certainly don’t want them to get the impression that their previous efforts weren’t appreciated.

Whatever the outcome, be clear on what the ‘new’ role is, or at least what the options are. You may not need to agree this right now; either one of you may need to time to research or reflect.

Agree actions
What needs to happen as a result of your meeting? There may be things they need from you, and possibly things you need them from them too. Sum up the actions either of you will take and by when, so you both know where you stand.

By now you’ll have a good sense for how they are feeling. Address any areas of concern, so they know you are there to support them, and that they can come to you with any later questions or suggestions, however trivial they may seem.

Do they have any further questions about their shifts, their pay, any training prior to opening, any new responsibilities, who they will be working with? You may not be able to answer all these questions right now, so make a commitment to when you’ll come back to them. Reassure them of your commitment to their safety and ongoing support.

Enthuse, excite and energise
Don’t dwell on the past, but demonstrate your enthusiasm and excitement about the opportunities ahead. Are there any new skills or interests they’ve adopted during lockdown that have relevance to their work or to the business as a whole and they’d like to pursue?

What new skills or development would they like? You may not be able to make any promises, but by having these conversations now makes it easier to factor them into your new business model where you can, and gives them something more to look forward to.

Everyone now has new experiences and different perspectives than they did 12 months ago, so listen and take on board any ideas and suggestions they have to help with their return to work or your reopening.

Review date
Schedule a follow-up date with each team member. Even though you’ve told them you are there for them, some would never initiate a conversation or come to you for help unless it’s in the privacy of a scheduled one-to-one meeting. Whether you meet again before re-opening or not, make sure there is at least one follow up date scheduled before you end the meeting.


Some of your team members may not have seen one another for the whole of the lockdown. You may even have new people in your team who haven’t met anyone yet. Take steps now to bring the team together, and ensure that when they return everyone is aligned. Here are three areas to pay attention to:

1. Shared purpose
People perform better when they feel a sense of belonging, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to have a shared purpose. But a lot’s changed in the last 12 months, so it’s possible your vision, mission, or values have shifted. Even if this isn’t the case, remind your team of your purpose, and by doing this collectively you know that everybody has had the same message.

In the lead up to opening, you’ll also have some immediate goals and priorities. If you let everyone know now what these are, it means they can be more prepared for them as and when they return. This enables everybody to be working towards the same goals and targets from the outset. This also provides an opportunity for people to share their ideas and input. Your team will often have a different perspective, so give them a voice, which in turn gains buy in and helps them feel valued.

2. Understand each other
It’s likely that most people’s roles will have changed to some degree, even if only slightly. Help everyone see how they each fit in and contribute to the overall purpose, and also individual departmental goals and priorities.

New roles and new challenges may result in some people needing support, so it’s good for everyone to know where that support might come from. Who within the team has the right experience, skills or knowledge to support a colleague?
As you will have identified from the one-to-one meetings, priorities for some have changed. If this is going to impact how or when people work, it can be useful for others to understand this. If they feel comfortable to do so, create an opportunity for them to share this.

3. Spending time together
Don’t let the lockdown prevent you from doing things together as a team. There are plenty of activities you can do online, where people can work as a team. Anything from virtual escape rooms, to horseracing, to cocktail masterclasses or wine tastings etc.

Whatever you do, the focus should be on having some fun with colleagues. If there’s some relevant learning to be had as a result (such as wine tasting), so much the better, but that shouldn’t be a prerequisite. You can also use your outdoor space to get your team together in person (naturally maintaining social distancing and any other government guidelines).

Taking part in a charitable event – be that fundraising, volunteering, or simply raising awareness – can be a rewarding way of bringing people together to work as a team, even if virtually.

Remember to celebrate what’s been good about the past 12 months. Have any team members achieved a qualification, or marked a significant event, birthday, or anniversary, but missed out celebrating with others? What have you achieved within the business: renovations, new services, charity work, supporting key workers etc?


Recognise your team will be experiencing a mix of emotions as they think about their return to work. Start preparing them as soon as you can, so they are ready both mentally and physically. Listen to concerns, answer their questions, and ask for their input so they feel valued.

Bring your team together so they are aligned and working together towards a shared purpose. And remember to celebrate and recognise your team’s contribution to your successful re-opening. Good luck.


About the Author

Caroline CooperCaroline Cooper is the Founder of Naturally Loyal, and has over 30 years’ training and development experience in hospitality. Recognising that managers in hospitality often get promoted into positions without much training, her key focus is on developing newly promoted and junior managers to lead and engage their teams effectively. You can download her free A-Z of Managing People at

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