How to have difficult conversations as staff return to the workplace

Risk Matters - Winter 2020

Lynn Cliff

Lynn Cliff

HR Risk Consultant

Lynn provides professional consultancy services to local government organisations in the area of human resources and organisational development. She has more than 30 years experience
in human resources operations working with both local government and the private sector.

As we look to the recovery phase of the current crisis, our focus in still on our people and integrating them successfully back to a new work environment.

A positive return to work is multi-faceted, it requires managers and supervisors from within local governments communicating and collaborating with their employees for a successful return to work.

Communication is key to success and managers have an important role to play in ensuring a positive and successful transition back to the workplace. A safe and supportive workplace will enable employees to make a successful return. A number of factors can make it challenging, so how can we achieve this?

Ask yourself and your organisation:

  • Have you adequately consulted with staff about the organisations proposed return to work arrangements?
  • Are you understanding and empathetic to the needs of staff?
  • How will you manage employees with concerns about returning to work (e.g. health risks)?
  • Do you have vulnerable employees?
  • How will you know if your staff are ready physically, emotionally and psychologically?
  • Did the organisation/manager handle formal directives in an appropriate manner with staff during this time e.g. leave directives and industrial relations issues of performance?


Understanding that each employee is likely to have different circumstances and often fears, you should base conversations on your knowledge of your employee and circumstances. Ask the following to gain an understanding of their expectations about returning to the workplace:

  • What does the new workplace look like for you?
  • What kind of transitioning arrangements will you require and for how long?
  • What has worked well for you during this time and how do you think this might continue in the future?
  • Do you have any concerns about returning to the workplace?

Other sections in this season's Risk Matters

Active listening’ is at the core of good communication. When having a difficult conversation it is not enough to simply hear the words that are spoken: it is vital to listen attentively to the emotion and subtle nuances, which are central to understanding the employees viewpoint.

Obviously even leaders experience stress during difficult times and may need to prepare for difficult conversations.

  • Try to change your mindset about the conversation, don’t label the discussion as ‘difficult’.
  • Breathe. Be calm and centred, practice mindful breathing.
  • Plan but don’t script. Take notes and key points before your conversation so that you stay focused.
  • Don’t make assumptions – seek to understand the situation from the employees perspective.
  • Be compassionate and open-minded.
  • Slow down and listen.
  • Work with the employee to develop solutions.
  • Reflect and learn.

Your employees will continue to need thoughtful, inspired leadership that helps them through this time of change.

Remember, BE KIND! Everybody is stressed and small acts of kindness and compassion help enormously.

Have a question you'd like answered?

Each month we take your questions to one of our LGIS team members to answer.

If you want to submit a question for next issue, email us at [email protected].

Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn

Other sections of this season's Risk Matters

New Normal

Western Australia fared better than many locations around the world following the coronavirus pandemic.​ However, COVID-19 had an overwhelming impact on local governments and exposed weaknesses within every industry.

How local governments operate in a post COVID-19 world will determine future workplace success.

Ideally, local governments will exit the crisis better than before.

Read more »

The mental health risks of COVID-19

As local governments prepare for the new normal of physical health safe guards including temperature checks and additional cleaning, they also need to consider how best to monitor and support employees mental health.

Read more »