Thought piece – “A Leader’s Guide for a Better Reintegration” outlining the parallels between returning to the workplace from Work From Home (“WFH”) and soldiers’ reintegration after deployment.  Insights, lessons learned, and best practices.

As the business world prepares to return to the workplace after months at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to share some insights and a few lessons learned from my experiences conducting numerous reintegration operations during my 30-year career as an Army officer so that leaders can avoid pitfalls and properly prepare.

Scenario – Sergeant Jones has returned home after a 90-day deployment to the Middle East. He is happy to be home but within a day he feels uncomfortable and is having a hard time adjusting to working in a different environment. While deployed, Sergeant Jones’ level of responsibility had increased, and although his duty day was longer, he was the master of how he accomplished his tasks. Now back at his home post, his bosses are in closer proximity usurping his authority while “peacetime” regulations and policies meant for workforce safety are stifling him. At home, things had changed slightly as well. His wife is more assertive with the children and is handling the family expenses, roles he attended to before his deployment.

 This is a typical scenario played out thousands of times over the years by servicemen and women as they reintegrate from a deployed theater of operations back to a “normal” peacetime setting of their home post. This scenario will soon be repeating itself across the country in multiple businesses and the lessons learned from the normal “battle-rhythm” of deploying and reintegration can be instructive in the corporate world.

It’s Really NOT Business as Usual

First, all leaders and employees need to truly acknowledge that “It’s Really NOT Business as Usual”. Hopefully, that is obvious, but most people don’t like change and will try to continue performing in the same manner as before the global pandemic. Effective heads of business should gather their key leaders and conduct an After-Action Review (AAR) on everything that’s happened in the last fiscal quarter focusing on mission, people, process, and technology. Open and honest dialogue is essential for this to be effective. To be a learning organization, leaders have to be thick-skinned–a truly effective leader can admit publicly when he/she has made a mistake and learns from it. Of course, a constructive AAR focuses on both improvements needed and successes (“sustains” in Army-speak).

Start by understanding what’s changed. Focus on the environment (internal and external), attitudes, and perceptions. What I learned over the years is that people sometimes fail to see that while they have been away on deployment, everyone else’s life has continued as well. People are resourceful and adaptive when the situation calls for it, so what might have been a standard practice or way of operating before the pandemic has no doubt shifted in the past several weeks. Sergeant Jones and his wife from the scenario are perfect examples of this.  Leaders have to be able to see the bigger picture, make decisions based on it, and properly explain their decisions to their workforce. The “why” of a decision is as important as the “what” especially in the current situation. In my experience, when tensions are high, the better you explain your decisions, the fewer misperceptions.

Second, attitudes and perceptions must be addressed by management. A leader with little to no empathy for their workforce, especially at this historic moment will put the organization on even shakier footing. Leaders of character will listen to their workforces’ experiences during the last quarter and equally as important, to their expectations. Sergeant Jones from the scenario needs to be heard by his leaders before his morale drops, productivity declines and he is potentially looking for a new job. As with any organization, the best ideas in the military come from the people executing the daily tasks.

The “New Normal”

Third, after addressing the “New Normal” using the framework of mission, people, process, and technology, leaders need to establish new Standard Operating Procedures. Your own experience should show you that easily understood guidance and procedures work best during contingency situations such as finding a majority of your workforce working remotely. I would recommend strongly if time and mission allow, to develop or update continuity books (a source document that outlines basic roles, procedures, and contacts) at least to the section level (individual position is preferred) so that your organization is better prepared if/when there is another contingency operation such as social distancing/work from home.

Finally, the last step is to apply Best Practices with regard to all aspects of operations you’ve identified during your AAR (operating environments, experiences, attitudes, perceptions, and expectations) add in your new (or updated) Standard Operating Procedures and ensure you inform and educate your workforce. Strangely, this step is often overlooked. As this pandemic has illustrated in the WFH context, good communication skills (both verbal and written) are a force multiplier.

Now more than ever all organizations need leaders of character to guide their teams. Thinking through your reintegration operations will help you to best prepare and be successful.

Joseph D. Davidson

Colonel (Retired), U.S. Army