Fear of change is an odd thing. Why should we fear something which happens to us every day in both profound and mild ways? We are fearful of change even when we choose it and want it, (consider fear invoked by starting the job we always wanted, the new relationship, or that uncharted holiday destination), but we fear change, even more, when it happens to us. How do we combat this fear as we begin to emerge to our new and changed relationship with the workspace? It is a question we must attend to, because, if fear is left unattended it will fester and become that most paralysing of emotions, hopelessness.

Response to change is so personal and wrapped up in our direct, emotional experience, that we project our positive or negative associations with it onto the next change we confront. To curb our fears as we come out of lockdown, leaders need to deliver change with clarity, honesty, and in a collaborative way.  Straight talking is required, such as: ‘we are not returning to what we know; we are departing from what we knew.’ If the message is conveyed without ambiguity, with confidence, and with the understanding that it will be a shared experience, we have a better chance to take everyone into this brave new world of work.

If you believe in the post-lockdown changes you are making in the work space, be an advocate for them, make the argument that change is a process for learning, creativity, and growth and that we will all benefit from this. If we feel invested emotionally, physically, and intellectually in the new world of work, it will give us a sense of ownership of the change and this is empowering. Feeling potent and in control (feelings which we may not have experienced for a while) means that we are more likely to adjust to and accept the change.

The challenge for business lies in attending to the wellbeing of its people as it asserts these changes, and effectively managing fear will be key. If fear (and there will be many and varied fears) is not addressed, it will fundamentally undermine the effective transition from lockdown to the new world of work. For some, who want to return to what they knew, who cannot see that things have already changed beyond repair, the fear is that the new will obliterate the old, including themselves. For others, who have become comfortable working from the safety of home, it is difficult to dismiss the fear that they have been used to feeling for the last year, and the office may be a threatening place. Fear is what made us all stay in our homes and fear is what has kept us there. We are not going to be rid of this feeling simply because we are told to, it is a habit now, and habits need to be consciously challenged.

How leaders combat these fears is crucial. We could encourage people who are afraid to simply ‘be positive’, I have heard this a lot, but this will not work, you cannot bludgeon fear away with the relentless pounding of positivity. What does work to counter fear is a sense of optimism, optimism offers more than positivity, it offers hope, hope that things will change, and those things can change for the better. Being optimistic is a call to face our fear head-on and to challenge the beliefs behind the feeling. When we choose this approach, we have an opportunity to regain control and responsibility for our feelings and decide to choose something in place of fear. What do we need in place of fear? We need trust. Trust in ourselves, trust in our leaders, trust in change. Is that a risk? Certainly, trust always comes with risk. But to live in a world without trust is the riskiest business of all.