There’s a lot of talk these days about the ‘old normal’, and the ‘new normal’.  As I see it, we continue to navigate our way through this fluid and ever-changing pandemic, and in business, we will adapt to living with the Covid-19 virus for the short to medium term.  As the country continues to go through the reopening phases, I’ve made a few observations in the context of re-opening businesses and employees going back to the workplace.

During the lockdown I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to provide wellbeing support to essential workers in call centres who were answering the Covid-19 hotlines.  These were folks who normally dealt with utility or technical problems who were now faced with real human issues and sometimes with people who had lost loved ones and who were sick and scared themselves.  It fascinated me how in the face of adversity and uncertainty, and without the training or background to deal with these issues, these essential workers met their new customers human to human, showing up with understanding, empathy and compassion and made a very real difference in the lives of the callers.  They simply showed up as human beings and responded to what showed up in front of them, in any given moment.

Since the reopening phases were introduced, my attention turned to my own business as the calls came in for support in re-opening businesses and meeting the new government guidelines. The genuine desire of most business owners and managers to provide a safe place of work and a safe place to do business has been heart-warming.  So has the widespread understanding that people may be worried and anxious about returning to the workplace.  The willingness and enthusiasm shown, to do the risk assessments, plan the response and measures to protect their business, employees, customers and suppliers has been very encouraging and shown me how much my clients care about their people.

However, with all the great planning, for many, when re-opening time came around it brought a new wave of challenges.  Some businesses opened as soon as they were allowed under the government guidance and others, for a myriad of different reasons, delayed opening.  Some employees couldn’t wait to get back to work and the workplace, while others needed re-assurance and encouragement or had questions to be answered, for them to feel safe.

Never has it been more important to realise that we all live in separate realities, with our own perspectives and states of mind.  We can show up and engage with each other, listen and understand each other and work together to find creative solutions.

In my work over the past few months, there have been some common threads among the companies who are striking the right balance between re-opening their businesses and getting people back to the workplace.  They are consistently engaging with their employees by:

  • Keeping them informed and updated about government and other guidance.
  • Communicating and regularly updating them about their Covid-19 Response Plan and measures while encouraging involvement and input.
  • Consistently implementing, monitoring and adapting the measures in place.
  • Sharing company, compliance officer, and employee responsibilities.
  • Consulting with employees about any changes that are needed.
    • Covid-19 measures
    • Government wage subsidy support scheme(s)
    • Reduced Hours
    • Reduced Pay
    • Remote Working
    • Changes to any Policies and Procedures e.g. absence policy or sick pay
    • Short Time working
    • Temporary Layoff
    • Redundancies
  • Providing regular updates and inviting feedback.
  • Listening to feedback and suggestions and responding in a timely and understanding tone.
  • Being flexible and providing reasonable accommodations to those of a ‘vulnerable’ status.
  • Providing information about mental health supports available and links to independent, external sources of support.

You might look at the list above and think these are just good practice at any time and you would be correct.  Isn’t it interesting how, these basic communications and consultation practices that we point to for Positive Employee Relations in ‘normal’ times are the same practices that help us strike the balance between the commercial focus of re-opening our businesses and helping employees feel safe enough to return to the workplace during this pandemic.  Classic Principles of Communicating, Listening and Engaging don’t go out of fashion.

Here are some of the most common questions from employees returning to the workplace:

  • How many hand sanitiser stations are there and where are they located?
  • Who will be required to wear face coverings and when, where etc?
  • What social distancing measures are in place / will I be 2 metres apart from others?
  • If we can’t be 2 metres apart, what additional measures are in place?
  • What are the toilet arrangements?
  • What are the canteen/kitchen arrangements?
  • How frequently will my work area/ common areas/ stairs/ door handles etc be cleaned /deep cleaned?
  • Will I be issued with PPE and trained how to use it and dispose of it?
  • What induction training will I receive before I return to work?
  • What happens if someone at work tests positive for covid-19?
    • will the business close?
    • will I be sent home to self-isolate?
    • will I be paid and if so, by whom and how much?

If you are feeling a bit stressed and anxious yourself, you might find these questions annoying or irritating especially if they keep coming from various different employees, returning at different stages.  When you take a step back and look at the situation from the other persons perspective, and when we allow and encourage these questions, show up in a human way and answer the queries with understanding and a bit of compassion, it generally leads to much more positive outcomes and deeper relationships.

Yes, as business owners, we may have our own fears and insecurities and we too may be facing adversity and uncertainty.  When we acknowledge how we ourselves are feeling, it allows us to show up with others in a more human way.  If you are getting these kinds of questions from your employees, engage with them, get them involved in coming up with workable solutions and if you can’t agree to a proposed solution, explain why.  The more open, transparent and human you are with your team, the more likely you are to achieve your desired outcomes.