AT the moment, uncertainty is the only certainty. It seems as if government guidelines, geographic peculiarities and the rules for life are changing daily.

However, as children returned to school this week, a little bit of routine and structure is creeping back into everyday life. This milestone is also allowing many businesses to begin the process of welcoming back furloughed staff, which is a positive sign both for the economy and employees.

While some will be returning to physical workplaces, many employees will still be working from home. Regardless, leaders will need to be mindful of the challenges facing their colleagues as they return to a vastly different workplace from that which they left. New systems, a hybrid office/home-working arrangement, improved technology, changing business priorities and new objectives will all need to be considered and communicated. While those who have worked throughout the past five months have likely settled and adapted to the new set up, they will be unfamiliar concepts to returners.

Though it has been a difficult time for furloughed employees in terms of uncertainty, hopefully they are returning with enthusiasm, a renewed sense of purpose, and excitement to get stuck in. In contrast, those who have worked throughout the last few months may well be feeling exhausted, as some will have taken on more responsibility and workload to compensate for furloughed team members.

Many people are enduring unusual levels of stress, anxiety, loneliness and unhappiness; and if we're not careful these problems may well fester. Remote working has enabled businesses to continue to operate, innovate and communicate, but because individuals are not seen in person, it is too easy to gloss over the ‘soft’ aspect of management and leadership. The saying goes, “the soft skills are frequently the hard skills to master” and this has proved to be just as true in a virtual world.

As staff return and the workload evens out, leaders have an opportunity to put wellbeing high on the agenda, ensuring that both the excited and exhausted staff are supported.

Reaching out to colleagues will become even more important. When we are asked how we’re doing, Scots are resolute in responding with “fine”, “good thanks” or “not bad”. This is often a tactic to avoid what some may see as uncomfortable conversation, admitting things are not fine. As a leader, it is important to use different approaches like asking open-ended questions such as “where are you on the scale of 1-10 today?” or “what might make your life less stressful?”. These approaches open a discussion, and leave no room for closed responses. It may even be appropriate to promote a culture of peer support, to encourage all workers to ask after their colleagues. Crucially, leaders need to be ready to engage in those conversations, listen and help where appropriate; this cannot be a tick box activity.

Shrewd business leaders will build on the established trust and flexibility that remote working has introduced. Many workers have been juggling work with looking after children and have adjusted working hours and practices to reflect this. In those businesses where anecdotal measurement has been possible, it appears that productivity has not slipped during the Covid-19 restrictions.

So perhaps we shouldn’t rush back to old ways but consider embracing the good practice and innovation that has emerged through this crisis. The option for flexible working should remain where possible, as should the trust that leaders have placed in their team to remain productive at home. And don’t forget to ask, “how are you really?”.

Malcolm Cannon is national director of Institute of Directors (IoD Scotland)