The best return-to-work scenarios prepare employees for the new realities they face while also acknowledging the horrors and hardships they’ve been through. Here’s why a new culture is as vital as new policies.
Now past the two-year mark, we feel how the pandemic has taken its toll on us as we try — not without challenge — to recoup our normal, pre-pandemic lives. So much has changed: our relationships, where and what we call home, our mental and physical health and well-being, technology, education, health care, the economy, the environment and the world (though, unfortunately, not politics).
The world of work has changed too, and employees are not the same. Are companies prepared for the seismic shift in the minds and hearts of their employees?
Recently, I have had the great fortune to “babysit” my two grandpuppies. Having raised my children with a family dog, I never encountered an agitated and anxious reaction when I left the house in the morning and returned from work in the evening. Our family dog knew that our leaving only meant our return. It dawned on me that these new pups adopted by families during the pandemic have never known a time when their owners were not by their side 24/7, seemingly placed on earth to fulfill their every need.
The realization hit me hard that a whole generation of young children and teenagers, college students, new employees and pets alike have come of age knowing little else aside from a world in hibernation, closed in on itself and eerily still.
To survive during the pandemic, many households created a bubble, a “pod” of people (and pets) who lived under one roof or who socialized only with one another, with little contact with the outside world. Some pods expanded to include elderly parents or adult children, while others were small pods of empty nesters or lone singles. Regardless, they provided some comfort, a sense of security and protection, against a world of chaos. By all accounts, introverts secretly celebrated while extroverts visibly wilted on the vine.
We are slowly emerging from hibernation, brushing off the cobwebs and stretching our limbs, but there is no question that we are not the same coming out as we were going in. We are changed. We have new expectations, new habits formed of necessity and yes, some baggage.
During the pandemic, many people relocated their families out of urban centers, often far from the home office, where they easily and successfully navigated remote work. Capitalizing on this trend, employers expanded their pipeline to attract talent from across the country (or even the globe). As the landscape of their workforce changed, companies consolidated office space.
Companies may be trying to reel employees back in, but there’s resistance from employees with long or impossible commutes, those with caregiving responsibilities or those with physical or mental health challenges. Those resistant to returning to the office say that just the discussion of returning to in-person work causes anxiety, along with feelings of alienation from counterparts who readily express eagerness to return to the office.
The pod-less new world is a challenging, stressful and sometimes scary place, sometimes as much for those waiting at home as for those stepping out. On top of pandemic worries, workplace violence continues to make headlines. The U.S. government defines workplace violence as the act or threat of violence, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults, directed toward people at work or on duty. It can also include workplace harassment and bullying, as well as domestic violence that spills over into the workplace committed by outside parties with whom employees have relationships.
At least 26 people were victims of workplace homicides in the U.S. in 2021 (in Boulder, Indianapolis and Atlanta), and recent weeks have seen even more violence. The May 14 shooting at a Buffalo grocery store, an act of workplace violence motivated by racism and hatred, is proof not only that the world of work is not a safe haven, but also that, for many, it has become a place to be feared*.
In a recent LinkedIn post, Ulysses Smith, an executive at financial services technology firm Blend, wrote, “I’m afraid. I’ve been afraid for quite some time. One of the reasons I’ve appreciated working from home is because of fear. A fear that what just happened at Tops could happen in any office. I’m fearful that that could be any office or any other workplace … the extent to which people now feel more emboldened to voice their hatred openly and act on it with violence is terrifying, especially when you know it could easily be someone with whom you work. So yes. I’m afraid. Many of your employees are, too.”
Nonetheless, many are eager to interact face-to-face with their colleagues, to resume the casual conversations at the water cooler, and to flex those social and professional muscles again. But mostly, people are eager to connect, to share war stories from the past two years and to recover a little of what they lost. Nothing is more evident of this need for connection than the prevalence of personal stories on LinkedIn, typically a forum for professional dialogue. People are hurting, and they are reaching out to their work families to share their stories and to feel less alone.
With the trauma of the pandemic, the rising tide of workplace violence and the Great Resignation, companies must stay true to their vision and mission, to take a stand on issues that employees care about — and to thoughtfully plan for the return to the workplace, with all its complexities.
According to a recent New York Times article, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that more than 23 million American households added a cat or dog during the pandemic, and many of those animals have never known what it is like to be left alone. Pandemic puppies are now at the sensitive age of adolescence. To adapt to their new life, they must be taught new skills.
Likewise, jumping back into office life is not always a matter of strolling through the front door and getting back to work. Companies must gauge their employees’ readiness, understand their biggest challenges and fears, and prepare to help them meet their goals and fulfill their ambitions. Then, they must devise a flexible approach to working, supported by a clear and transparent communication plan, that offers different ways to interact and work that reflect the diversity of their post-pandemic employee base.
Starting with the company code of business conduct and other policies and benefits programs, employee resources must reflect the new way of working and provide support — mental, physical and otherwise — for employees and their families. Opportunities should be made available and adequately funded for employees to meet each other socially outside of the office, as well as to attend onsite and offsite business meetings and conferences. Technology must be leveraged to level the playing field for employees and equalize opportunities to make them feel trusted, valued and rewarded for hard work.
Gone are the days when physical security could be sidelined. Given the growing concerns with workplace safety, basic security measures like front desk security, employee ID-only access, security cameras and surveillance in parking lots must be in place. Prohibitions on harassment, violence, and possession of drugs and firearms in the workplace must be reflected in company policies, communications and training. Ethics and physical security hotline numbers must be available and well-advertised, so employees are clear on how to report concerns of any kind, are comfortable and confident doing so, and have no fear of retaliation.
The new workplace does not look like it did two-and-a-half years ago. We all need to rally together to make this new world of work safe, supportive, respectful, rewarding and meaningful for employees — wherever they are and however they work — and for their ecosystem. We owe it to this generation.
*A note from the author: Between the time of the writing of this article and its publication, another mass shooting by a gunman took innocent lives; this time, 21 were killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. For many, Robb Elementary School was also a place of work.