While the pandemic continues to devastate parts of the world, here in the US, we’ve entered the reunion phase. Kids are seeing grandparents, often for the first time in 15 months. The friend circle is widening and you may even find yourself at a party, with strangers. People are returning slowly, but surely, to in-person office work. I got my first request to show up at a potential customer’s office for a pitch this week.
Some of these encounters feel totally natural. It was just awesome to have my parents visit for a week. Others feel a little awkward, like sitting at a table and talking with a bunch of friends of friends at a graduation celebration. So it wasn’t surprising to see a headline that said, “It’s not just you. We’re all socially awkward now.” That awkwardness is exacerbated by being in this “in between phase”. Slightly less than half of the US adult population is fully vaccinated, so we aren’t approaching herd immunity yet. Kids under 12 still can’t be vaccinated, which leaves parents of younger kids in a more challenging spot. All this means there are still risks, even while all the restrictions are beginning to lift. “Everyone says they care about COVID safety, but everybody has a different definition. People are appalled if you’re too restrictive or permissive. As the world is opening up, that tension is a little stronger,” says Dave Nadelberg, founder of the Mortified Podcast.
The workplace is not immune from this awkwardness. Leaders, who are beginning to bring people back together, may want to acknowledge it and have some plans to address it. It may involve thinking a bit like a camp counselor welcoming back the masses after a year away.
Advice for Leaders Returning to the Office during ongoing pandemic
Acknowledge it’s great to see everyone AND that it’s a little weird being reunited. The best thing to do is to say: ‘It’s a little weird getting back out into public, and the office, and socializing again, isn’t it?'
2. Name Tags
If you are in a larger company, consider name tags for a few days. This sounds crazy, but with masks on, it’s hard to recognize people. New employees, who have only seen/been seen on Zoom, will benefit even more.
Incorporate a few COVID-safe team building events. Now is not the time to jam everyone in a conference room to sing or eat, but adding some activities like trivia or group word games or a weekly “kudos” session will help ease people back together.
4. Buddy System
Create a work buddy system. Often used for new employees, consider assigning everyone a “back to office” buddy and encourage them to connect over the first week of being reunited.
Use icebreakers to start meetings, like two truths and a lie or “if I could have lunch with one person.”
Create spaces and places for courageous conversations. You have employees who are grieving lost friends and family. Employees who fear for their safety, based on the color of their skin. Employees who are really struggling being back at the office, emotionally or logistically. Create opportunities for people to connect with others for conversations on these topics.
7. Collect Feedback on Staff being Reunited
Collect feedback early and often. No leader can guess exactly how their workforce will be feeling in this phase. It's likely to shift quickly and vary dramatically from employee to employee. Keep managers and executives in listening mode. If you have pulse surveys, take the pulse on day one, day 7, day 14 and then at least monthly after that.
For more ideas about building connection and resilience as employees return to the office, check out our webinar on How to Support Employee Mental Health in 2021.
I am so looking forward to my first customer visit, my first white boarding session with our executive team and our first all-team offsite. I’m prepared that it’s never going to feel exactly how it used to. I’m also pretty confident that when we are reunited, it will ultimately feel so good.