The essential EQ Leadership skills needed for returning to work

Emotional intelligence skills you need

The situation now

With more businesses getting ready to invite people back into the office, some already being back in, and more getting their offices ready for hybrid working, this next phase of adjustment to new ways of working is set to be especially emotionally challenging.

We’ve all become accustomed to being a bit more isolated, communicating virtually, and not having to deal with daily commutes and being around a lot of people. Some have struggled with extreme isolation, with a huge increase in reports of anxiety and mental health issues.

Now, as well as our daily ‘to do’s’, the additional virtual meetings and processes needed, plus personal, family and relationship pressures, we are now having to consider going back in.

As part of my research for this blog, I have spoken to several leaders and HR Directors about what’s happening in their organisations.

At KPMG they’ve extensively surveyed their 207,000 employees and 650 leaders across 153 countries and territories. KPMG sees the changes that are possible from this intervention as a once in a generation opportunity, changing the way people interact with their work as well as the way they approach career opportunities and contribute to KPMG’s client success.

I spoke to Richard Aston, Associate Partner about his experience:

“There’s a real divide in terms of people’s personal experiences of lockdown and consequently what they want in terms of going forward and hybrid working.  Any return to ‘normal’ is impossible and we can no longer offer that. I’ve noticed a real bell curve with regards to who wants what – often with the younger and older team members at each end wanting a full return
to work, normality and office life.  Then, in the centre are the middle-agers wanting much more of the hybrid model – either because they enjoy their new family time (when the kids are able to be back at school!), using their commute time more effectively or just enjoyed working from home! What’s also been interesting is when we consider leaders in our own business and clients, many of them have struggled with the lack of perceived ‘power’ of WFH – they really miss the experience of standing in front of a room full of people – being on a Teams meeting is a very equalling force and some really want to get back to the old World as quickly as possible.”

Anxiety is high and for this next phase organisations and its leaders are going to have to both acknowledge this, and be able to deal with it. Companies like AXA XL are already considering the issue and what’s needed.

I spoke to Bal Mahil, Head of Distribution Operations:

“There is a lot of anxiety in different forms which manifests differently for each of us. We all need to understand this and learn how to manage it.  Taking time to acknowledge what we’ve all been through is the first step as there will, most likely be some  ‘residual stress’ from this past year for many of us which will take some time to process. We need a gradual return emotionally –– we’re going back into the exact flipside of what we’ve been doing for the past twelve months and that is going to be a big change emotionally, socially and professionally.   Some people will recognise this and some people won’t, if we don’t manage it well, this will trigger more stress and anxiety, ultimately leading to all sorts of issues in the workplace and at home.”

What is Emotional Intelligence and how can it help with the return to work?

Emotional intelligence is essentially

The ability to know one’s emotions, manage one’s emotions, understand the emotions of other people, and manage relationships with others.

For further details, here’s mine and my business partner Anne Taylor’s EQ Leadership Formula Model:

emotional intelligence skills you need


Over the past decade, organisations and leaders have recognised the importance of EQ and its impact on retention and turnover, productivity and performance, engagement and revenue growth and profit – with one study putting the ROI of emotional intelligence training at a whopping 1500% (1).

And by looking back at the four pillars of self-awareness, self-management, social- awareness and relationship management, you can see how being emotionally intelligent will serve you or your people very well through this next phase of returning to work. So let’s get down to the granular of each domain, and how they will help you in the return to work….

Returning to work with self-awareness

Self-awareness is the foundation pillar of emotional intelligence. Everything else – how you behave understand and relate to others, comes from firstly recognising your emotions and how they connect to your thoughts and behaviours.

This is especially important when dealing with such a big transition, that also comes on the back of another, very anxiety-inducing one. It’s even more important when you add in the fact that many of us are working extremely long hours remotely, with reports of stress and burnout at an all-time high.

At the same time, while new policies on hybrid working are being implemented, it’s important you know how this is affecting you.

Yu Ping Yu, Regional HR Director Heineken Asia Pacific shares her reasons why:

“ Self-awareness is absolutely key during this period.  Leaders need to first recognise their own state of being before they can focus on others and then create the kind of environment that will have their people thrive and flourish. The outcome can be polarising as the leaders who are more emotionally intelligent will already have strategic self-awareness – they have the ability to know who and how they need to be right now, rather than being solely focused on the ‘doing’ of leadership. However leaders who don’t have such high EQ will not be able to do this. The relationship is likely to become more transactional, and they run the risk of not only losing their people,  but also of not getting the results needed for their organisation.”

Some questions to ask yourself:
  • What are my energy/exhaustion levels out of 10?
  • What self-care do I have in place?
  • What are my feelings about returning to the office?
  • What are my worries or concerns?
  • Who do I need to be right now?
  • What qualities, skills and attributes do I need to step into?
  • What areas do I need to develop?

Returning to work with Social-Awareness

Social awareness is extremely important right now. Social awareness is recognising and understanding the emotions of others. This shows up as specifically as being more empathetic and recognising the needs of others, and being tuned into the social and cultural dynamics of situations. Among everyone I spoke to, empathy was the number one EQ skill named as being of paramount importance, and the biggest challenge for this next phase.

Gabriele Arend, VP Human Resources EMEA at Getty Images:

You need to know your people really well in order to do this next phase well! We have seen some of our employees at their most vulnerable due to strained personal relationships, space constraints, childcare responsibilities. Being inclusive means allowing all employees to remain productive despite adverse circumstances. Leaders had to find ways to balance business and people’s needs and understand how group dynamics have changed over the past eighteen months.

This required empathy, sensitivity and foresight and will remain the same for the hybrid future of work ahead of us. Leaders need to consider – what will happen over the next six months, how will people react, what makes people their most productive, and how can I combine the needs of those who remain working from home with those who return to the office. During the pandemic so far, emotionally intelligent leaders are the ones who’ve shown a considered approach and taken into account personal circumstances, working preferences, and how they’ve coped – or struggled. This open-minded and empathetic approach needs to continue during this next phase.


Increase your social awareness:

  • Not everyone is coming out of the same WFH situation and not everyone has the same feelings about the return – get curious, try not to assume, find out people’s circumstances and what they need.
  • Stress, anxiety and burnout figures are at an all-time high – give others the benefit of the doubt with regards to their energy, response times, and availability.
  • Opinions vary widely on return to work policies, the safety of returning to the office and vaccination – tread lightly on conversations about COVID-19.
  • Practice being more empathetic – ask how people feel, acknowledge people’s feelings, if someone expresses an emotion get curious, ask more about it rather than shying away from it or changing the subject.
  • Ask powerful questions instead of closed questions or questions that being with ‘why’ – which can be perceived as being judgemental. A powerful question is short, open-ended, and stimulates reflection and insight eg. What are your reasons for that decision? What’s important about that for you?

Self-Management back in the office

Self-management means being able to manage your emotions in a way that’s healthy, conscious, has the impact you intended, and is appropriate for the situation. You are able to separate out how you respond to any given stimulus – so that you can consciously choose how to respond in any given moment (rather than flying into a blind rage or being passive-aggressive). Know that we all handle change differently and you may be more or less tolerant of what’s happening than someone else on your team or on the board.

“We will all be going back into towns and cities, onto trains and buses and doing things that we haven’t had to do or think about in a long time.  That is going to be unsettling and likely to cause some stress and anxiety.  We need space, we need  to encourage talking about it and share how we’re feeling about it.  We can’t ignore what we’re going through and how it’s affecting each of us, we need to acknowledge it, and we need to have a gradual return to manage it. “

Bal Mahil, AXA XL.

Boost your self-management:
  • To avoid over-stimulation from suddenly being surrounded by lots of people again, give yourself small breaks throughout the day, taking the opportunity for a walk outside wherever possible. Request and change your start and finish times to less busy ones wherever possible. Noise-cancelling headphones are also a great hack for reducing social stimulation – use them on public transport or even in an open-plan office if possible.
  • If you are feeling less tolerant or the patient learns to pause, take a moment (a single deep breath through your nose down into your belly can trigger the alming parasympathetic nervous system), check in with your emotions and internally name them before you respond/make a decision.
  • If you disagree with any return-to-work policies rather than sharing an emotionally charged opposing argument, allow the emotions to cool (twenty minutes is a good time to allow any triggering to subside, plus physically moving your body can help calm your system) and formulate a thoughtful, reasoned response.
  • Develop or return to a self-care regime that supports your self-management – for that means returning to the basics of exercise, sleep and good nutrition. For others that means maintaining good WFH self-care routines or adding in that much-talked-about attempt at meditation 😉
  • Look underneath the emotion of any negative or extreme emotional responses you may be having, and take personal responsibility– what’s the unmet need, the old wound or dishonoured value, the mental health or well-being need here.. what is the real situation here, the facts? What’s my role in this? What can I do to resolve this?

Relationship Management back in the office

Relationship management involves knowing how to develop and nurture good working relationships, inspire and influence effectively, communicate clearly, have difficult conversations and manage conflict well.

When stress levels are high and during times of crisis we tend to become much more self-focused and less relationship-focused (because our brains have gone into fight/flight/survival mode).

Everyone I spoke to reported that it’s ‘people’ and connection everyone has missed, and consequently it’s relationship-building that’s a priority during this next phase of workplace rep-openings.

For companies such as Zuhlke, who have gone through a huge period of growth during this time, the importance of this is even higher:

“ There is already a lot of demand for the voluntary attendance spaces in our offices, which we have allowed in limited numbers and with all safety precautions in place to support those who struggle with working from home.  People both need the space for strategic thinking and they want to see people face to face.  We have a lot of people who’ve joined us during this time and they haven’t yet had the chance to physically meet or get to know each other – and many of them really want that. During this time and demand, leaders are going to need to focus on relationship-building by developing their own skills of empathy, listening, coaching skills and mental health awareness.”

Ina Hristova, Head of HR, Zuhlke Engineering LTD

Additionally, this time, your colleagues will be your primary source of coping resources during this time – whether it’s emotional or social support, or more collaborative, creative problem-solving and work-related support. We all need a sense of community and we all need to feel emotionally safe at work during this period of transition.

Create community and psychological safety:
  • Explicitly contract for how you will be working with others during this period – clarify roles and responsibilities and identify how you can work together effectively and enjoyably during this time. How do we want to be in a relationship with one another (empowering, supportive, vulnerable, challenging, direct, no-nonsense)? What are the outcomes you are hoping for? What is each of your roles in this work?
  • Make relationship-building a priority by scheduling in time with people you need to reconnect with on a human level – whether it’s your direct reports, manager, clients, other colleagues.
  • Show that you genuinely care about how people are – check-in with people more than you would usually, get curious about how they’re doing, what challenges they’re facing – both at home and at work during this transition.
  • Make it ‘OK’ to not be OK – talk about and normalise worries concerns and anxieties. Let it be known it’s OK to not always be ‘perfect’ and get everything ‘right’ during these times of commonly dealing with incomplete information, constant change and unusual delays.

Take care of yourself, take care of others

The mental health impacts of the past eighteen months are insurmountable and are not just going to disappear once everyone comes back into the office. We’re all dealing with residual stress, as well as the stress of yet another transition in the return to work – whatever shape and form that may take.

Contrary to what many of us have been raised to believe, old approaches such as ‘man up’ or ‘just deal with it’ are not effective strategies for dealing effectively with highly stressful situations – let alone a pandemic.

Research shows that the key to getting through things well, staying focused and motivated, and performing at our best, is not pushing through or being hard on ourselves, but self- compassion.

Then, and only when, we are being kind to ourselves and giving ourselves a bit of kindness, can we then do that for others.

And you’ll only be able to do that if you are taking good care of your body and mind. As the old saying goes:

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first”

I’ll be writing more on the specific EQ capabilities needed, during the coming weeks. To receive these blogs, on subjects such as empathy, adaptability, listening skills, conflict management, and difficult conversations, sign up here to join my Meaningful Change Newsletter


1) Spencer, L. M. “The Economic Value of Emotional Intelligence Competencies and EIC-Based HR Programs.” In The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace: How to Select for, Measure, and Improve Emotional Intelligence in Individuals, Groups, and Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass., 2000.

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