Working in-person together, rotating schedules and shifts, sharing spaces that meet social distancing requirements, taking temperatures upon entering offices, updating policies for lunch or client meetings, and managing childcare amid return-to-school decisions are among the many considerations for employee return-to-work plans. Even reading this small list raises many questions and creates angst.

Angst and anxiety. The words are out there but we aren’t actually talking about the impact and toll this takes on employees every time we think about what is keeping us safe. As organizations continue to say that they are “creating a culture of safety”, is that continuing – or even worsening – the angst? The pandemic has impacted families and individuals in varying ways and anxiety levels and how we manage stress also varies. The word safety even means different things to different people. As leaders and managers of teams, we must approach this as we have already – differently from anything else.

 A culture of safety means the habits are commonplace and embedded into the way we do ‘normal’ things. Washing our hands in the restroom or before eating is commonplace, a known habit. Determining how we address someone with a handshake, or an elbow bump is still something we are working through. Taking temperatures at entry points and remembering to grab our mask on the way out or keeping an extra in the car is not something we have done in the past. Using a high touch area at the office or other public place and remembering to wash our hands or use sanitizer every time is becoming a common thought. And every time we think about it, it’s a learning curve, a little bit more brain fatigue, uncertainty, and anxiety. When these small gestures and thoughts begin to add up, it is mentally draining.

While leaders, managers, and organizations are collaborating to provide the best options for safety and health guidelines, are they creating more concern and more worry upon the return to the office? How can they help to alleviate this burden? Rather than safety, create a culture of understanding:

  1. Empathy – Work and home life are colliding in a way unlike anything before, and for the long haul. Schools are undecided and children are home. People are getting sick and having to worry if it is COVID or something else. People are making decisions for their families without plans in place for the year ahead. The list is endless on the questions we all have about the future. Check on people and let them know you are there to provide support when they may need help.
  2. Flexibility – Because of this total integration of work and home, the reality has become a ‘get your work done when you can’ work week. We may be working unique hours early in the morning and late at night after children are sleeping or blocking specific working shifts with our partners to manage schedules. These flexing schedules are becoming commonplace and employers need to accept that there may no longer be a traditional 8-5 workday for some employees.
  3. Interactions – We may not yet be comfortable with asking how our coworkers and colleagues feel about social distancing or social interactions. For those returning to offices, they may not be comfortable going to lunch yet or meeting outside of their offices. Identifying ways to help employees easily understand each other’s sentiments may be a solve. Using a certain color sticky note on the office door or different colored bracelets are a way to identify employee’s comfort level of interaction to ease the awkward unknown around new interactions.
  4. Unplug – Encourage the workforce to unplug for their mental health. Remote work is now a 24/7 option and the workforce is tired. We must take care of ourselves.
  5. Communicate – Keep the team informed about what is happening if it impacts work. If employees are willing to share when they have stressful events happening, this will make it easier for everyone involved. The employee will feel more supported and potentially have extra coverage, and the team can continue to be productive when they know why someone is having a stressful or less productive week. Open team communication is critical in this virtual setting to adjust and tailor to needs accordingly.

In a world of uncertainty and inability to fully plan ahead, let’s help create some certainty with a ‘culture of understanding’ – understanding that everyone is different and has been impacted differently by the pandemic. From families with children and grandparents or individuals in isolation with no family nearby, we don’t know how employees are truly feeling. Whether returning to the office soon or in 2021, it is with complete understanding from leaders and managers that employees and individuals will ultimately feel safe.