For the past month, my Facebook feed has been filled with pictures of people’s COVID-19 vaccine cards or their Band-Aid-bedecked arms. And this week, different pictures started to appear: People with their arms around their elderly relatives.
COVID-19 ripped in-person interactions away from all of us, and we’re happy to get back to hugging and handshakes slowly. And while we know that our family members are waiting for us with open arms, what about our coworkers?
Employees who have been working remotely for over a year now are starting to trickle back to their offices. Meanwhile, essential employees who worked in-person through the worst of the pandemic might even feel brave enough to revive a handshake here and there.
Still, interactions at work can be awkward. The CDC recommends masking and social distancing unless everyone in the room is fully vaccinated—are you really going to pry into someone’s vaccination status when you schedule a meeting? How do we return to normal at work? Do we keep elbow bumps forever?
Provide Clear Directions Around Reopening
When people come back to work, make the rules clear. Don’t leave anyone guessing.
For instance, if your state doesn’t have a mask mandate and people aren’t typically wearing masks at their desks, have a sign on the conference room door that says: "Masks required in the conference room." And place a box of disposable masks and some hand sanitizer on the table outside the room.
There should be similar signage in all other shared spaces—bathrooms, elevators, etc. This signage avoids confusion and enables you to discipline rule breakers.
Don’t Depend on Employees to Social Distance at Work—Create the Space for Them
Some people are vaccinated and ready to hug. Others are ready to embrace, even if they’re not vaccinated. In any case, space is the name of the game for the time being—and all of your workers are going to have to respect your social distancing rules.
If your employees are typically tightly packed in cubicles, you’re going to have to rethink your setup. Push desks apart at least six feet or put up plastic barriers—the kind you’ve likely seen at your local outdoor dining venue. Limit the capacity of large meeting rooms to ensure that employees can keep six feet of distance between them. Set up markers between chairs so that there’s no doubt about what six feet looks like.
Today, Not Sharing is Caring
You’re working with adults who can decide on their own if they want to share food, but if your team is the type to bake a batch of cookies for the whole office, you may want to send a memo to discourage this temporarily. That way, no one feels obligated to eat something that makes them feel unsafe—and no one is left offended that their colleagues didn’t touch their famous chocolate chip cookies.
Bagel Fridays may have to wait, too, because that communal container of cream cheese may as well be a jar of germs. You can, of course, offer to comp your employees’ breakfast once a week if you’d like to keep the perk going without the risk.
A Safe Return to Work Calls for Respect
The most critical aspect of a return-to-work plan is concrete communication. Whatever your company rules are, make them explicit. Don’t leave anything up in the air.
And one other note: Depending on your state or local regulations, your management team may choose to take a more relaxed approach to certain rules, like mask requirements. Nevertheless, make clear to your team that anyone who wants to follow a higher standard of social distancing and masking than your company or state rules require will be respected. Emphasize that you want everyone to have a safe and comfortable return to the office.