Finding Your Organization’s “New Normal” in the Wake of COVID-19

Posted on June 10, 2020 by Adam Frei, MS, LPC, CEAP

African American man Business manager_zoom call_SmallThe COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our daily life. Employers have made workplace decisions to keep employees safe and ensure the longevity of their organization in response to the health risks and government orders to combat this highly infectious disease.

As more states begin to discuss taking steps to “reopen the economy,” organizations must now decide what this transition will look like for them and their employees. Although there is no “one size fits all” approach for how to move towards our new normal, we hope the following information will help you decide what is best for your organization and employees.

Be Prepared

In an ever-evolving landscape, there may not seem to be the smallest possibility of preparation. There are many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent response by local, state and federal governments that are entirely outside of our control as leaders and organizations. Especially in difficult times with significant changes occurring every day, we must be aware of what we can and cannot control.

By embracing a preparatory mindset verses a reactionary mindset, your organization can enact policies and procedures that will support the safety and longevity of your organization. Your organization’s plan should be developed with the input from employees at every level of your organization. Returning to the workplace will feel differently for everyone. For some it will be a relief to return to some assemblance of our previous “normal” and for others the idea of being near others will cause significant distress.

To assist you in embracing your preparatory mindset, the CDC has released information for safe reopening procedures and policies and preparedness. These plans can provide the initial groundwork for your organization to start your transition towards your new normal.

Transitioning from Teleworking

In response to the CDC recommendation to physically distance ourselves from others and state-level workplace, school and daycare closures, many employees have left their shared offices to work from home. The transition to telework has led to significant changes in what many workplaces look like, which will likely have a lasting impression on the work environment. If your workforce has transitioned to primarily remote working, you may be asking if or when your employees will return to the office.

If you are considering having your employees return to their shared office space, there are numerous questions that need to be answered to ensure a safe and effective work environment.

  1. What is your state’s current policy, orders and/or recommendations for shared workspaces?
  2. What is your plan for testing within the workplace? (what symptoms will you test for?)
  3. Will employees be required to return to the workplace?
    1. What will be your policy for employees who are not comfortable returning to the workplace?
  4. What physical changes need to be made to your workplace to ensure appropriate social distancing?
  5. What is the contact information for your local public health department? (to assist in contact tracing)
  6. What is your action plan if restrictions on shared workspaces are reinstated?
  7. What is your action plan if an employee becomes sick or tests positive for COVID-19?
  8. Will employees be required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE)?
    1. What PPE will be required?
    2. How will employees obtain and maintain their PPE?
    3. Will employees face disciplinary action for not wearing PPE?
  9. What are your cleaning & disinfecting procedures? (see CDC guidelines)

These questions and many more will need to be answered to ensure that employees feel comfortable and safe returning to the workplace. By collaborating with employees, you can address possible blind spots that may exist in your workplace that could impact employee safety. Additionally, it will be important to connect with your local public health department to ensure they can effectively and efficiently trace any possible outbreak that may impact your workplace.

Three Quick Tips:

  • Create a voluntary “Return to Office” Committee to ensure employee needs are heard and incorporated.
  • Establish your communication strategy for changes in workplace procedures.
  • Connect with other similar organizations to discuss what’s working and best practices.

Returning from Furlough

Organizations who had to make the difficult decision to furlough parts of their workforce to ensure financial stability now may have the opportunity to return these employees to the workplace as “non-essential” businesses and services are resuming. Although employees were aware of the policies and procedures that were in place prior to COVID-19, numerous changes will likely have occurred to ensure your organization is in compliance with the requirements to reopen in many states.

  • Employees should be provided with advanced notice that they will be requested to return to the workplace. Your employees will have varying responses to returning to the workplace while there may still be a risk of contracting COVID-19.
  • To ensure that your employees are engaged, happy and healthy, assess their needs to feel comfortable returning to the workplace. Establishing an alternative PTO policy and additional support should an employee test positive for COVID-19 can go a long way to dissuade fears and concerns with returning to the workplace.
  • Prior to returning to their regular duties, employees should receive an in-depth review of any changes that have occurred in how they will go about their workday. If your returning employees will be teleworking, ensure that they have the necessary equipment to do so.
  • Whenever possible, it is important to take the return to work process slow and communicate with your employees who will be returning to work regularly so that they know you are available for support and guidance when needed.

Employee Grief and Loss

When significant life changes occur, there will always be feelings of grief and loss that employees will need to make space for and find time to process. Although we often think of the passing of a friend or family member as a moment for grief, COVID-19 has introduced a new type of grief for employees to process; the grief associated with having to miss, cancel or postpone an important life event such as weddings, birthday celebrations, graduation ceremonies or the birth of a loved one’s child.
Often, as is the case with the passing of a loved one, we have funeral rituals that provide a structure for processing our grief, but unfortunately, even these rituals have been disrupted by the need to stay socially distance. And the loss of a life event has not been a common experience for many. Here are some ways that you can support you employees and help them process the grief that they are or will be experiencing.

Check-in – Grief is an emotional roller coaster. With the add uncertainty employees are dealing with daily, the grief they are feeling will have a more significant impact on them and that impact may look different from day to day. It is important that managers and supervisors check-in with their employees on a regular basis to ensure they are functioning as well as possible, whether they are working from home or in the workplace. If you notice something that feels out of place regarding an employee’s behavior, gently address it by utilizing open statements based on your perceptions such as: “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been getting your reports in on time for the last week. Is there something I can help with?” or “It looks like you’ve been calling in for your Monday Morning shift for the past 3 weeks. Can we talk about it?”

Rituals – Whatever previous rituals your organization engaged in regarding the passing of an employee’s loved one, find ways to continue those rituals (send flowers, allow coworkers to attend funerals virtually). Create new rituals to show your support such as donating to a non-profit in memory of the individual who passed.

Create Space – Allow for flexibility regarding an employee’s work schedule to be able to connect with supports and make time to grieve. Especially in the case of the loss of a life event, allow your employee to take time off around the time their event was previously scheduled for. Offer reassurances of organizational support when their life event will be rescheduled to decrease worries and feelings of anxiety. Allow employees to work from home while working through their grief to give them more time before they must “face their co-workers”.

We Can Help

However your organization is being impacted by the effects of COVID-19, VITAL WorkLife is here to help. Not only will we support your employees in processing their grief and coping with the stress and anxiety associated with a significant health crisis, but we’re also here for you as a supervisor, manager and organizational leader.

Our Senior Consultants are available 24/7 for supervisory consultations and coaching to help you find the right path forward for your work group or organization. In addition, we craft personalized consulting solutions to meet the specific needs of your organization. Whatever your needs may be now or in the future, VITAL WorkLife has resources to assist you. Contact us at 800.383.1908 or online.

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