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Returning to work: How listening can help

People might be happy to return to offices and pre-pandemic work, but that brings a new set of anxieties. Learn how listening can help.

5 min read


Returning to work: How listening can help

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During a recent consulting engagement, my client (a senior executive) lamented the results of his organization’s just-released engagement survey.

He explained that after two months back in the office, the bump his organization has enjoyed during the pandemic had turned into a dip. Employees were feeling less connected now that they were back to physically working together than when they labored remotely.

Unfortunately, he’s not alone. This is a counterintuitive trend experienced by many. How is it possible? After all, leaders and organizations worked feverishly over the past year to ensure a sense of cohesion under incredibly challenging circumstances. Virtual happy hours. Engagement boxes. Executive broadcasts. Frequent check-ins. The effort was extraordinary. And in many cases, it was deeply appreciated.

People took solace in the extra attention and intentional inclusion. Paired with the adrenaline most of us found ourselves running on (as even something as mundane as securing groceries frequently felt like a life-and-death encounter), it’s easy to understand the artificial high experienced by many over the past year or so.

But now, as we return to reality, those feelings are naturally fading. In fact, they’re being replaced by anxiety and new stressors as people can finally let down their guard and begin to process the trauma we’ve all endured.

Connection remains essential to helping people navigate the workplace changes and human emotions that undergird a return to some form of normalcy. But leaders and organizations are moving into a new phase of engagement that demands new approaches. Continued communication is key, as are transparency and finding safe ways for people to become reacquainted with interpersonal routines.

This next phase, though, will be fueled by something else. Listening. Not just any kind of listening — listening with the intention to connect. Now more than ever, people need leaders who can:

Connect with individuals

We’ve all been through a lot. Employees, who’ve always wanted to feel seen and heard, may bring more of this need to the workplace now. Leaders who are able to invest in listening to others — with curiosity and empathy — will offer the kind of validation and connection required for a return to some semblance of normalcy.

Connect people with other people

After a year of remote work for many and social distancing for all, our interpersonal skills may be a bit rusty. (I know for myself, the quietude brought on by the pandemic has brought out the less-social side of me. What about you?) People will benefit from a leader who listens with an ear toward finding ways to build bridges, collaboration and relationships within and among teams.

Connect ideas

As a result of operating in survival mode for the past year, many employees have their heads down with a focused dedicated to taking care of what’s right in front of them. For many, there may not have been the mindshare to consider the big picture or how things fit together.

That’s where leaders can make a difference as they helicopter up and listen for how ideas, solutions and initiatives connect in service of the customer, the organization and the team.

Connect people with ideas

Leaders with the intention of connecting won’t listen long before they find opportunities to connect people with ideas. It might be global and strategic – like rallying support for sweeping organizational change. Or it could be local and individual – like helping an employee pursue a learning goal or find more meaning in their work.

Either way, listening can serve to illuminate and ultimately act upon these connections. 

How well are you making these connections with your listening?

The intention to connect is the invisible force behind a leader’s ability to effectively leverage listening during this time of transition. Typically, when the topic of listening is addressed, it’s framed as a set of techniques. Make eye contact. Ask insightful questions. Pause and use silence wisely. Encourage others to talk more.

While techniques like these can definitely help, leaders who want to use listening to connect need to bring more to the interaction. They need to be:

  • Passionate: Truly committed to surfacing the information and issues that can lead to greater connection
  • Present: Attentive, focused, mindful and in the moment in a way that communicates value and respect to others and offers the broadest access to the messages being shared and the opportunities they present
  • Proactive: Prepared to advance ideas and take action when appropriate based upon what’s heard

No one expected that we would emerge from the pandemic without challenges. But a lagging sense of connection once people could again be together was not the challenge most leaders would have predicted.

Guiding people through this uncharted terrain into a future characterized by even greater cohesion, relationships and commitment is possible. Just lend them an ear – and your intention to engage in connective listening.


Looking for additional leadership ideas and resources? Because supporting employee engagement and performance this year demands a clear-eyed look at last year, download our complimentary e-toolkit, Hot Mess? Dumpster Fire? Train Wreck? You Still Have to Conduct Year-End Reviews. In it, you’ll find a novel way to get employees to prepare, a roadmap to a productive conversation, the must-ask questions, pitfalls, tips for handling it remotely, and even strategies for addressing the dreaded money question.

Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning. Named one of Inc. Magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, Giulioni is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want,” You can learn more about her speaking, training and blog at

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