Rethinking the Workplace Post-Labor Day
Recently I have been speaking to friends about what their employers are saying about going back to their offices, given that we are still up to our necks in a pandemic. For starters, they all mention that whatever they do is guided by the restrictions local and state elected officials have in place. That is the only thing the various plans had in common.
Some companies have decided to keep their workers remote through at least the end of the year or longer. CEO Mark Zukerberg has stated that by 2030 at least half of Facebook’s 50,000 employees would be working from home. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has announced that Twitter and Square’s employees would be allowed to work “where[ever] they feel most creative and productive…even once offices begin to reopen.”
Another scenario has employees separated into teams with distinct groups of people that come to work on different days creating “bubbles” that can help limit broader spread should someone test positive. For those who choose to go to the office, there are protocols in place that include taking your temperature and completing a form asking if the employee has experienced any COVID-19 symptoms or been exposed to anyone who has.
At a time when students are testing positive days into the start of the fall semester at schools in Georgia, does it make sense to take this risk at work too? The answer to this complicated question is far above my pay grade and I believe that these decisions should be made by relying on guidance from leading pandemic health experts. Having said that, there are other considerations that are weighing heavily on employers regarding the mental health wellness of their workers.
A new study by the public relations firm Ketchum on how the pandemic impacts the American workforce sheds light on how employees are feeling. Now, a majority of workers believe feeling safe is more important than being promoted. Forty-two percent report having the ability to work flexible hours is more important than receiving a promotion. This has particular significance to households with working parents with children attending school virtually this Fall and whose supervision throughout the day may make the difference between learning or not.
What about those extroverts who draw their energy from the outside world: the people, places, and things around them? And the single people whose daily interactions with co-workers, church members, and even their barista can provide life-affirming contact in a sometimes-lonely world?
A perfect example is the executive assistant of a close friend who is very active in her church and had been his company’s office manager for the last decade. Let’s call her Sandy to protect her privacy. If you asked anyone who knows Sandy at work or at church, they would say, “She’s the glue that holds everything together at work” or “Sandy’s bright smile comforts me when I see her at church each week.”
A few weeks ago, Sandy reached out to my friend to say home confinement was difficult for her and the lack of contact with co-workers left her feeling disconnected from the workplace. Sandy is not alone. A survey by Small Business Trends found that 21 percent of respondents say they experience loneliness because they work remotely. Even though there is uncertainty as to when there will be a vaccine, one thing is clear: research clearly shows that employee productivity is linked to employee engagement.
Enough with the doom and gloom. The good news is that experts have been studying how to minimize the negative impact from working remotely. Instead of worrying about what is out of our control, they recommend focusing on what can be done to 1) make it easier to work from home, 2) alleviate employee anxiety, and 3) intentionally create ways to stay connected virtually.
Technology and Flexibility: Let’s face it, remote work is here to stay, which means each employer must provide the equipment (i.e. laptop, internet access) and the technical support needed (i.e. set up and troubleshooting) so employees can perform their jobs. Employers must recognize that it is not a worker’s responsibility to have access to high-speed internet at home in order to do their job. Developing a sustainable solution is further complicated by employees with childcare and caregiving responsibilities. The answer may be to offer part time options and allow workers to job share.
Emotional Support: With no near-term relief in sight, coupled with the fact that social unrest is putting stress on individuals personally and professionally, it is important to check-in with employees to see how they are feeling, and provide a forum to share how they are feeling. Make sure to seek guidance from mental health professionals when developing a path forward.
Creating Connection: The inability to engage one-on-one requires creativity and intentionality to keep people connected. Virtual happy hours, socially-distanced yoga classes, and volunteer service performed safely can help maintain bonds and encourage participation.##
Wesley Combs, a CAMP Rehoboth Board member, is a diversity and inclusion expert, executive coach, and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.