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Leadership lessons from Wuhan

A recent research by Harvard Business Review of 350 employees of Wuhan, China has explored the return to normal life after lockdown, with particular focus on how people prepared themselves and their teams to go back to work. The initial survey that took place in April demonstrated the importance of mentally preparing for the return to work and the role of leadership in promoting health and safety in the workplace. This was followed up with another survey to explore the correlation between leadership behaviours and employee engagement upon returning to work.

The findings highlighted that employee engagement and performance were highest where employees had mentally prepared for their return to work and the leadership team showed an authentic commitment to health and safety in the workplace. What was significant was the importance of demonstrating both.

Fostering employee engagement

Pre-pandemic research suggests that employees returning to work after disruptive traumatic events struggle to focus on work and often require readjustment. To drive post lockdown employee engagement, it’s essential for leaders to ensure their teams are both physically and mentally ready to return to work, and activities such as jointly setting long term priorities and to-do lists can help employees to prepare. Leaders have made significant changes to address employees most pressing needs and in the long term, they need to build on the trust earned by being present, authentic and transparent.

In addition, the growing sense of pandemic fatigue makes it even more important to reconnect with employees. By being readily available and helping employees to give meaning to the crisis, leaders can build employee resilience and help connect employees to the organisation and to one another which can help to enhance social connection.

According to McKinsey’s research sustaining trust and acknowledging employee efforts are critical to employee engagement, well-being, and effectiveness, and organisations that have been building social capital during earlier phases of the crisis will be in better positions than others as the workforce transitions to the return phase. To build a positive organisational culture, leaders can help create inclusive and psychologically safe team environments by modelling behaviours that value the inputs of each employee, encourage individuality, and allow them to experiment without fear of negative consequences.

Promoting health and safety

Many employees are returning to work with concerns for their safety, as they understand the possibility of another wave of the pandemic. This concern can be a source of stress and anxiety for employees, and it can significantly diminish engagement. Promoting the activities organisations are focusing on to protect their employees can help to understand health and safety procedures, such as social distancing, and highlight the consequences of not following protocols. Equally important is to ensure that the rules are easy to follow, including providing sufficient equipment and supplies.

Walking the leadership talk has never been more important as employees will be looking to their managers to demonstrate the right health and safety behaviours. When leadership actions are inconsistent with the behaviours expected from the wider team, this can signal to employees that leaders in their organisation don’t truly care about their people. Leaders should focus on making a positive difference in people’s lives by demonstrating awareness, vulnerability, and empathy, whilst learning to strike the right balance between realism about the challenges ahead and confidence that the organisation will find its way through the crisis.

At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at


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