The pandemic has altered how many of us communicate, engage with our teams, support clients, and think about our work. As organizations and institutions start to consider a return to the physical office, it’s time for managers to reflect on how to do so in a way that addresses employees’ concerns and needs.
Here’s what three managers (at various stages of reopening) had to say about welcoming their teams back to the office.
Be clear and honest about safety
- Communicate what returning employees can expect. Outline in advance how the space has transformed and what safety precautions are being taken. Work with each team member to map out their daily routine and have a plan for what will change. Be sure to plan and share new guidelines around break room, restrooms, and other common space, along with detailed expectations around disinfection, temperature taking, elevator use, and anything else that applies to your specific office space.
- Determine how people will be held accountable. Cat encourages supervisors to ask whether there are consequences for not adhering to guidelines. She adds that it is key to ensure that policies are inclusive and flexible, and take into account that some employees might not be able to wear a mask for long periods. Make sure there are outside or isolated areas where people can retreat.
- Make sure you’ve got the right equipment and test out anything you’re expecting your team to do before you ask them to do it. If your employees will be answering phones while wearing masks, take some time to practice doing so yourself. Find out if your expectations are challenging to fulfill and make any necessary changes before implementing anything with your team.
- Be available for one-on-one meetings before team members return. Cat’s advice is, “Everything isn’t always a group conversation. Have individual meetings beforehand so that you can answer as many questions as possible about what it really means to come back into the space.”
- Don’t overpromise. In conversations with your team, Cat encourages you to remember that “you can make any space safer, but you can’t guarantee safety.” While you can disinfect all day, your colleagues must understand that everyone at the office makes decisions that affect everyone else.
Be positive and show compassion
Kiran Ahmad, a registered dietitian nutritionist working in food management, has spent the majority of the pandemic working from home. In July, her organization sent her on two work trips which required flying.
Though nervous, she adhered to all CDC guidelines. It was not lost on her that it would be harder for other members of her team to follow suit, especially since they have to consider the possibility of bringing COVID-19 home to other, more vulnerable members of their households. She shared her thoughts on the challenges and benefits of returning to the office.
- Your team is adaptable. One positive aspect of returning to the office for Kiran has been “the ability to bring back employees who were furloughed.” As operations have been reduced, the team is smaller and people are being asked to develop competencies beyond their original roles.
- Many people want to get back to work; those who aren’t ready shouldn’t be penalized. “Honestly, most people who have been asked to return to work seem to be happy to return and be employed again,” Kiran noted. Since the return is incremental, people who said they weren’t ready are not being pressured to do so. Though she’s heard of others in her industry who are terminating people who aren’t willing to return, she and her organization understand that it will take time for people to feel comfortable, find childcare, and tie up other loose ends.
- Increased safety measures and open dialogue are critical. From abundant hand sanitizer stations to extensive training on social distancing and updated cleaning protocols, it’s important to make sure everyone is equipped with the know-how to keep the workspace clean. The trainings also provide time for open dialogue where “no question or concern is off the table.”
- As COVID-19 evolves, policies will need to be updated and changed. Kiran’s business travel also brings to light the new policies that would need to be developed and maintained regarding whether staff members are allowed to return to the office after traveling to specific states or countries. Being proactive about developing such policies will enable your employees to make informed decisions and plans.
- Practice what you preach. Kiran makes a point to visit team members in person (while adhering to proper protocol), and encourages other supervisors to follow suit. She says, “We don’t want employees to feel like we’re returning them to work but are staying away because they ‘aren’t safe,’ We want to show our support and care in every way.”
Make sure your plan considers every single member of your team
Beverly Colston, the director of a multicultural center, has concerns about returning to campus, where it is difficult to “imagine all students adhering to guidelines.” Her office will use a hybrid model where staff alternate between in-person and remote work, and the center will have to find new ways to continue producing the community-building programs that students rely on.
Noting that the BIPOC students the center serves have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, she anticipates higher needs and asks whether (and how) the center can deliver and meet student expectations. When asked what supervisors might keep in mind to make the transition back to the office easier for their teams, she emphasized the following:
- Do your homework. As the new school year approaches, Beverly is reading about how other institutions are preparing for the return to campus, while working with her team to develop a set of informed and creative plans they feel confident about.
- Leaders don’t have to provide all of the solutions. Engage the whole team in figuring out answers together.
- Be flexible and listen actively. Prepare to put your preferences aside as you learn new information that requires shifting.
- Share information and invite input. Communicate, so that folks always know what's going on and why. Elicit questions and observations. Welcome feedback.
- Keep asking who you may be leaving behind. Be cautious about making decisions that serve the majority but leave some teammates out of the mainstream. We all have to adapt to this new and different work style, and we need to it together.
- Be patient with yourself and your team. Take breaks and get rest so you can help your team during this ongoing challenge.
Honesty, protection, and flexibility are key
This is new for everyone and it’s understandable that there will be hiccups. Have patience and continue to learn. Increasingly, employers are offering employees personal protective equipment; find out what it would take for your office to do likewise. Lead with openness, honesty, and a commitment to taking all of the safety precautions that are possible, while being flexible. Your employees will follow suit and feel comfortable sharing their apprehensions and ideas.
Cat shared that even if returning to the office it is nerve-wrecking, there are benefits like increased empathy and sympathy, “There’s an understanding and grace in the workplace that just wasn’t there before.”
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Sheena Daree Miller is based in Brooklyn and divides her time between working in faculty development at a university and managing a black heritage center at a library. She is committed to promoting equity, with an emphasis on supporting graduating students and career changers.