William Bridges gives a framework and guidance for teams and organizations navigating changes and transitions in his book, Managing Transitions. I am going to use his framework for looking at the current situation we are in with Covid-19 and the changes in how CU campuses are operating. 

Bridges highlights that a change is a specific event. In this case, the event was the decision for non-essential workers to work remotely. The transition is the psychological process of adjusting to that change. The three stages of transitions help us to know how to manage ourselves and others through that psychological process, that transition. 

The first stage is Ending, or Letting Go. This is the stage in which we process that things are no longer what they were. And as with anything we let go, we have to process that psychologically. Here are ways you can help others to let go:

  • Identify what is lost
  • Accept the reality and the importance of the subjective losses
  • Don’t be surprised by overreactions 
  • Acknowledge the losses openly and sympathetically
  • Expect and accept the signs of grieving
  • Mark the endings
  • Treat the past with respect
  • Let people take a piece of the past with them
  • Show how endings ensure the continuity of what really matters

For yourself and your colleagues – how can you do some of these things? How can you mark an ending? You could even create some form of ritual. How can you give space and grace – and even permission – for people’s overreactions of grief responses? The Harvard Business Review recently published an article on how grief could be showing up for you and others during this time. 

As with all psychological processes, we will all be processing the ending in different ways at different times. And we all may need some help – even if it is as simple as having some flexibility in one’s work schedule to process things as they come up. We will also need time. If you are a leader, manager, or supervisor, it is your role to help your team feel supported through this process. 

The second stage is the neutral zone: We are currently in a neutral zone. We are no longer in what was, nor are we in what will be. Here are some highlights Bridges notes about the Neutral Zone: 

  • Normalize the Neutral zone
  • Redefine the Neutral Zone
  • Create temporary systems
  • Strengthen intra-group connections
  • Use a transition monitoring team
  • Use the neutral zone creatively

Start by thinking of how to normalize and name the neutral zone. Maybe create a new, optimistic metaphor for this phase. Be intentional in what temporary systems or processes may need to be created during this time. Create new ways to connect with each other and strengthen relationships and connections. Since we are working remotely, this can feel even harder to know how to do. There are teams, families, friend groups all over the world getting creative with how to connect. Learn from them – think outside the box! Maybe assign a few people to take pulse checks on how things are going and what folks need during this time. 

Most importantly, use this time to be creative! In the neutral zone, you are not bound by what was or what will be. This is the perfect time to take stock, observe, deconstruct the old ways of doing and thinking about things. What are other ways you could do your work or engage with your constituency? How do you provide creative space for yourself? For others?

The third and final stage is the New Beginning: We are not here yet. We don’t know for sure when we will be. Though we are not in our new beginning, we can be looking ahead to start preparing for what we will need to do when we do arrive. Here are some of Bridges’ considerations:

  • There will be ambivalence toward new beginnings
  • Consider the timing of new beginnings
  • The 4 P’s:
    • Purpose  (what is the intention of the new beginning?)
    • Picture (what does the new beginning look like?)
    • Plan (what is the plan for the transition into the new beginning?)
    • Part (what part does each person play?)
  • Reinforce the new beginning

Create space to consider how you will define and solidify the new beginning. Do not expect to go back to “normal.” That time has gone and passed. (If reading those two sentences was hard and you resisted what I wrote, this indicates you have more work to do in the ending/letting go phase. Pay attention to where your resistance is coming from and give that space!) 

When we return to working in person again, this will not be “normal.” It will not be the same as it was. We will have changed as individuals, as teams, as an institution, as a nation, as a society, as a planet. If you expect things to be as they were, you will experience tension and conflict within yourself and with others. Move into a return to in-person work as you would entering an entirely new situation. Be intentional about how you will work, especially how you work together with your teams and colleagues. 

You are not alone in any of this! For help and support being intentional through this transition process for yourself or your teams, please contact your Ombuds office. 

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds,
University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office