Reflections on returning to work in the midst of a Pandemic

  by Lisa Z. Webne-Behrman, Ph.D, C.Psych.

I’m pleased to welcome my Partner in What Matters, Lisa Webne-Behrman, as a Guest this week! Her insights and experience are most welcome at this unique time…

After four months of working remotely, many businesses are preparing to have staff return to their usual offices. This is causing anxiety for many, uncertainty regarding how clients and customers will respond, and organizational stressors as both leaders and staff members attempt to grasp concrete plans in the face of deep uncertainty. 

Living things seem to naturally desire movement and growth.  My indoor and outdoor plants move toward the light with what seems like a strong desire to produce, to perform, to do.  We are in the throes of a worldwide event compelling us to consider how we “do” our work, why we do so, and in what manner we will reopen our physical places of employment.  We reflect on these important questions in the midst of the Pandemic from a position of incomplete information about the future and not a small degree of current chaos, adding significantly to the complexities of the problem.  Given this, and the need to plan, produce, and do, the following guidelines are offered with humility and as a place to start:

A.  Create a framework for re-opening.  Share the information with all involved in a concise and clear manner.  Provide the broad strokes without getting too stuck in the weeds.  Procedural details of safety are of course important, though try not to lead with this detailed information.  Convey the basic framework including:

  • Affirm the Values and Intentions that form the foundation of the framework; 
  • Name the broad phases of reopening; and 
  • Clarify the criteria required to identify progress and determine when to move from one phase to the next.  More on this below.

B.  Identify criteria that are easily understood, identifiable to all involved.  The criteria guide the process. In this case with reopening, we move forward as specific criteria are met.  In some cases, they indicate the need to slow down or even reverse course.  Developing specific criteria also pits the problem against observable and agreed upon metrics as opposed to a group of individuals/ leadership/ managers.  

C. Develop markers or signposts that signify desired outcomes relevant to the specific work being done.  Signposts let you know where you are (… next signpost up ahead, “Twilight Zone”).  For example, I work at a social service agency with a fairly large community mental health component that might find it useful to develop signposts related to the variables of content and time.  Signposts also need to work in concert with the established criteria per B above: Assuming specific established criteria are met, ~20% of staff may have the option to work in the office beginning August 1, 2020 continuing to offer remote tele-health services. Tele-health services will continue to be offered remotely (from home) and will be further reviewed by October 1, 2020. 

D. Address this time as a complex transition, with focus on managing the stages of transition (following Bridges).

  • Communicate regularly with staff.  
  • Provide information that addresses real needs in a calm and caring manner.  
  • Seek input and listen well.
  • Acknowledge that the framework and next steps are being developed in the midst of a crisis vs. re-building following a crisis.  As such, transition plans to re-open and return to work are being developed while squarely planted in the “Neutral Zone”, a place of uncertainty and some murkiness. Name it.
  • Manage the Neutral Zone, this period of ambiguity and uncertainty, with
    • Create space for feeling unsure…it’s normal.
    • Identify some meaningful short term goals.
    • Maintain supportive connections with colleagues.
    • Help each individual understand how they might positively contribute to the change moving forward and the importance of their role in the organization.
Bridges Transition Model | William Bridges Associates
Bridges’ Transition Model

E. Capitalize on the creativity of the time. It seems that the combination of novelty and necessity sparked some creative approaches to our work that we can capture and further continue moving forward.  As we approach the return to work conversations, make room to discuss the opportunities this time has also afforded.    

Reopening our workplaces is a critical challenge we need to address. Let’s do so by acknowledging the uncertainty that exists while also clarifying our collective purpose, with meaningful communication, and respect that people should be provided specific frameworks and options. This may offer us a chance to get it right.

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

I am a facilitator, mediator, educator, and consultant specializing in addressing complex challenges and disputes within organizations. I bring over 40 years experience to this work and offer two recent books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021) to these efforts.

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