Seeking Vitamin E in the Reimagined Workplace

It had been seven long months since we RVed to California to welcome our newest grandchild into the world. While we have Facetimed regularly the last seven months, there is nothing like being with your grandkids and children. So, when it was our turn, Dan and I eagerly rolled up our sleeves, got vaccinated, waited several weeks, and jumped on a plane to get a dose of “Vitamin E”  — aka our grandson Ezra and his parents. It felt so good to feel so normal!

I had not been in an airport or on a plane in 15 months. Pre-covid, I was a very low-key traveler – crowded airports, restaurants and planes didn’t phase me. A first trip post-vaccine surprisingly made me a bit anxious. We were traveling at the end of spring break. The airports at both ends were bustling with people. All social distancing seemed out the window, it was a bit unnerving.

In the weeks following this latest travel experience, Dan and I have become more relaxed. We’ve  engaged in more activities that had been missing from our lives. As more Americans have been vaccinated, case counts are coming down, our country is reopening, and companies are making plans about how work will get done in this new environment.

Some people are gregariously jumping back into an active life. They can’t wait to get back to the office, eager to shed isolation and the accompanying mental fatigue. At the other extreme, there is more caution. In a recent consumer survey, 26% of those surveyed are not confident about shopping in a grocery store, being packed in a crowded elevator or working in an office setting. In the follow up question as to why people weren’t confident to return to “normal”, 81% shared they are concerned about “the next one” (pandemic).

It’s important to consider these different mindsets when developing a “return to office” play book. We need to account for the new work environment and how work gets done, how workspace gets used, how to  continue employee engagement, and a work experience that makes your entire team feel safe. Done right, your new practices can elevate you to an employer of choice. However, practices that miss the mark can set your workplace back in ways that can take years to overcome.

Planning is key to make the return to normal work for you and your team. When creating your plans–return to the office or a hybrid model–my advice is to consider:

  • Data driven return – Rather than set a “date” for return begin early, bringing in a small test group. Test and learn what your new office should look like, sound like and feel like. In my discussions with some companies that have already started implementing back to office plans, data from initial test groups pointed to using space differently than planners had expected. Space flows are different and comfort levels also are different, and engagement levels have changed. Be prepared to balance health and safety with camaraderie and water cooler conversations.
  • Communicate & Educate – Once you have defined your new protocols and policies, communicating and educating about these expectations is critical. This is not one and done. Information needs to come through multiple channels, multiple times. People may hear the information, but it will takes time to process it and create new habits. Consider 7×7 – seven times, seven different ways. If you’re on the planning team for the return to office, you’re familiar with all this. Keep in mind that those who will join you are not. So communicating about your actions through spaced repetition will create reinforcement.
  • Different work experiences – Most of your team has likely been working from home (WFH) the last 15+ months. However, some of your team may have been deemed as essential, requiring them to complete their job function at your office, store or manufacturing facility. Their COVID work experience has been considerably different. To engage all on equal footing, encourage dialogue for input and buy-in. When your team feels like their opinions matter, they are more likely to participate in the process and. cohesively create the camaraderie that’s been missing.
  • Well-being – Many people have experienced anxiety, depression and exhaustion from the demands of their merged home and work lives. Others have lost loved ones or have been impacted in other personal ways. Incorporating elements of empathy, vulnerability and compassion about “what’s next” is critical. Asking someone how they’re doing and share how you’re doing too. Sharing experiences creates stronger workplace connections. (Ask colleagues what their ‘Vitamin E’ is!) Empower people to care for themselves and their families encouraging them to take breaks and adopt healthy habits. Developing a robust array of resources as we make this next shift will pay dividends. Resources to consider: a well-being challenge, meditation apps, help people stay active through exercise, breathwork, and mental health therapy.
  • Partnerships vs. vendors – Create partnerships with people traditionally thought of as Janitorial services is a perfect example. Their accumulated knowledge of smart cleaning–not only what to clean, but also how and with what–will limit pathogen spread. Positive outcome is creating a safe environment with best practices for your team.
  • Flexibility – As you build new protocols, stay flexible. In many cases, there is not just one right answer. And what we know today could very well change tomorrow with new information. Listen to hear; what is your team saying, what is going on in the community, what does the science say? Flexibility does not mean a free-for-all. Decisions should be based on data and team input.

Navigating COVID has been an arduous, energy-depleting experience for everyone. A recent survey reported that nearly 70% of workers said this has been the most stressful time of their career. Creating a return to office experience that is multi-layered, matches the tolerance of your team and is thoughtful and holistic will generate trust, engage and create the positive experience we all need.

As always, I love learning from you. Please drop me a note or give me a call 952-933-8365 to let me know how you and your team are working through this shift back to the office. I truly enjoy connecting with each of you.

If you need outside resources to guide your connectivity and balance engagement with safety that will boost your employees’ experience, let’s start a conversation. You don’t have to go it alone.