By Jen Butler, MEd, BCC, DAIS
*This is an article from the Summer 2021 issue of Contentment Magazine.
Are you ready to open up your office now that vaccines are available for COVID-19? You have probably realized by now that returning to the workplace is going to be quite different from returning to “normal.”
Most companies are anticipating that employees, customers, and vendors will have doubts about walking into a pre-pandemic crowded, mask-free workplace. In response, many offices plan to make changes that include limiting the number of employees who are onsite on any given day in order to enforce social distancing, continuing with video conferencing, and exchanging the big welcoming plate of bagels and muffins for individually wrapped servings.
According to Eagle Hill Consulting, a management research firm, 42% of employees want employers to delay opening until more adults qualify for the vaccine and 52% want the vaccine to be required.1 Even after the vaccine is widely available employees are hoping the workplace will still require masks, social distancing, and protective gear. The research firm is also predicting a major spike in turnover as the job market opens.
You may want to consider the return to onsite work as a major exercise in change management and stress management. How can you prepare for it? The four most important steps you can take are to understand the source of stress, define a change management strategy, use the art of persuasion, and act in compliance with regulations.
Understanding the Source of Stress
The pandemic caused major changes in the lives of employees and employers alike. Change that affects a person’s sense of self—that affects the answer to the question “Who am I?”—is especially difficult. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, a change that affects people on a personal level (such as a bad review) is much more stressful than a change that affects them as a group (such as a change in leadership).2
The pandemic upended personal relationships, threatened personal finances, limited access to and availability of food and other resources, tightened personal space, and placed every individual’s job in jeopardy. The stress has been tremendous and has caused some people to act out in anger.
Now, on the heels of a year of isolation and uncertainty, the world people have almost become used to is being upended again as employees and employers ponder the return to work under conditions that will continue to demand change. As an employer, you can begin to help manage this stress with:
- An open acknowledgement that stress exists and is real
- A renewal and possibly a re-thinking of the company’s sense of mission and values
- Open communication about your back-to-the-workplace strategy and expectations
- Training in new procedures; for example, those designed to keep people safe or to allow for communication among a partially remote, partially onsite workforce
- Support from a stress management professional for those who may be overwhelmed by the pressure of yet more change.
TIP: Provide your employees with information on resources they can call on as they make the transition. Those resources may include the contact information for a stress management professional, a local or national hotline, or other representative, either internal or external to your company.
Defining a Strategy
One of the biggest obstacles to change is a lack of strategy. A lot of the initial confusion and resistance during the early stages of the pandemic can be traced back to authorities who were scrambling for a strategy and changing direction each time new information emerged. One mark of a true crisis is the lack of time to formally strategize.
However, you have and should take the time now to consider your initial strategy in line with your company’s values and goals and to prepare your employees for the changes you envisage. More importantly, you have a chance to survey your employees and perhaps your customers about their fears and expectations. Do employees agree that they are ready to return to work? How many of them would prefer to continue telecommuting? Would customers prefer to continue video conferencing? What obstacles have they confronted in reaching your staff?
Among other change management and stress management strategies you might consider organizing:
- A return-to-work task force that includes employees as well as leaders
- A permanent technology liaison to support those who continue to work remotely and to facilitate communication with customers
- A customer experience representative to make sure that your changes are acceptable, understood, and achievable
- A communications liaison who can direct people to resources they need.
TIP: Make sure you yourself are invested in the strategy and prepared to lead by example.
Using the Art of Persuasion
When people are persuaded that change is in their best interest, they are more likely to go along with it and respect it than if change is mandated. One of the problems with ordering change—as seen, for example, with orders to wear masks—is that some people balk at any order, regardless of their own self-interest, simply because it is an order. In addition, the lack of supporting explanations allows rumors and misinformation to flourish.
According to Robert Cialdini, an expert in persuasion, you are more likely to succeed in introducing change if you:
- Create a reciprocal exchange (for example, “if you do this, I will do that”).
- Build a sense of urgency (“if we want to reopen now, we have to do this”).
- Cite experts (“the CDC says to do this”).
- Are sincerely likable (basic courtesy and an upbeat attitude are essential).
- Introduce change a little at a time in a consistent manner (for example, you have people return onsite in stages).
- Draw on the experience of others (“the other businesses in town found this works best”).3
The right metrics will help you determine if the measures you put in place are achieving what you want to achieve. In addition to degree of compliance, your metrics might include a decrease in turnover, higher morale, and optimism about the return to the workplace. Metrics allow you to adjust course, which is a critical component of both change management and SMaRT stress management.
Complying with Regulations
Your employees and customers will feel a greater sense of security if the changes you propose are in compliance with regulations, as well as the recommendations of authorities and experts like the CDC. You will also have the security of knowing that you have legal backing and protection for any changes you make.
Some states have passed laws protecting companies from any liability for workplace spread of COVID-19, as long as the company has avoided reckless behavior. Many more states have been considering those laws.
OSHA is also evolving rules for keeping records about reporting employee absences and deaths related to COVID-19. Among other measures, OSHA recommends that employers:
- Assign a workplace coordinator to take up COVID-19 issues on behalf of the employees.
- Mandate masks.
- Emphasize physical distancing
- Educate their employees about these and other precautions and encourage them to stay home if sick.
- Treat vaccinated and unvaccinated employees alike, having them follow the same rules at least until more information is available about the effectiveness of the vaccine.4
TIP: While you need a legal foundation for change, change management is easier and more successful when you genuinely ask for ideas, encourage employee participation, and keep communication open.
The pandemic has left everyone with a residue of stress from a year of isolation and upturned relationships, both personal and work. Therefore, the changes you propose to allow a return to the workplace have to consider both that lingering stress as well as the new stress caused by workplace adjustments, such as mask wearing and physical distancing. By joining the principles of stress management to the principles of change management, you may ease the transition for yourself, your employees, your customers, and your entire company.