Should I stay or should I go? This is a question that was put to music by a band called The Clash in the early 1980’s. In the song, the lyrics are: Should I stay or should I go? If I stay there will be trouble and if I go there will be double. While the context of that question was around a romantic relationship, today’s pandemic context is that of a business as it wrestles with when and how to re-open. Bringing people back to the office too soon carries significant concerns and risks while prolonging shut-downs or remote working for companies not structured for this also carries significant concerns and risks. So, the question leaders are confronted with is should we stay clamped down or should we go forward with the re-opening?
It is a difficult decision for leaders to make and there will be critics and supporters regardless of the decision. While many of you may be fortunate enough to have input into that decision, most will simply end up being on the receiving end of whatever decision is ultimately made. At some point, however, you will be asked to return to the office to resume some version of our pre-COVID functioning. Your job, at that point, is to navigate as best you can through your response to that decision. Below are a few tips that may be helpful.
It is helpful to understand that perspectives around COVID and the concerns associated with this virus vary widely from one person to the next. The thought of leaving the safety and controlled environment of home in order to return to the office will generate significant anxiety for some, while others will have little reaction. Depending on one’s perspective, they will fall somewhere on the “continuum of concern” such that they have very little concern, significant concern, or somewhere in the middle. Most of you already know where you fall on that continuum, but it will be important that you calibrate this against others in the office with whom you will be working. As with everything else in life, you need to remember that not everybody sees the world the same as you. Therefore, it will be important to calibrate where you are on the “continuum of concern” against those around you so that you can better plan for how you will best find your comfort zone upon returning to the office.
In order to validate your efforts to calibrate as described above, it will be helpful to have direct conversations with those you work most closely to better understand where they are and what their needs may be as it relates to returning to the office. This could be as simple as asking, “What concerns you most about returning to the office?” Having such a conversation informs you of the actions you can take to ensure you are able to find your comfort zone most efficiently. As a bonus, such a conversation allows you to help others find their comfort zone. Just as it is important to avoid making assumptions about what others truly feel, it is also important to avoid assuming that others know what you truly feel. Talk openly with one another.
Prior to returning to the office, reach out to your manager for a consultation. The purpose of this conversation is to collaborate with your manager, through honest dialogue, as to how to honor the expectation of the organization while simultaneously honoring your own safety concerns. This conversation should include asking your manager what his/her vision for the “typical” return to office environment looks like and what opportunities may exist for flexibility around executing that vision. Likewise, this is a prime opportunity to share with your manager any concerns you have about returning to the office. The goal of this conversation is to find the best way for the organization to get what it needs while also helping you get what you need. Remember, there are no easy answers here, so it is important to consult and collaborate with your manager along the way.
Don’t hover over somebody while in line at the ATM. Tell somebody when they’ve dropped something out of their pocket. Help somebody up who’s fallen. Stay in your lane while driving. These are all examples of social contracts – implicit agreements we have with one another in the spirit of mutual respect and in the spirit of doing all we can to co-exist together in the most effective and prosocial manner possible. This pandemic is challenging us to establish new social contracts with one another. On the heels of the conversations you have had with your team and with your manager as suggested above, it will be important you agree to adhere to the social contracts needed to ensure your work community is able to co-exist in the most prosocial manner possible. This means honoring where others may be on that “continuum of concern” and being willing to accommodate when possible. It also means being mindful to accept and respect one another without passing judgement. And finally, this means respectfully holding one another accountable for violating the social contracts within the office. Make the contract with your colleagues and then abide by that contract.
Dr. Jody Bradham is a Licensed Psychologist and Executive Consultant with 26 years of experience in the “people change and growth” business. Since joining TalentQuest in 2011, Jody has been actively working with clients across a variety of industries, and has built a robust coaching practice working primarily with senior level managers and executives.