The human side of returning to the workplace: 3 considerations for CEOs

return to work employee

Since the onset of the pandemic, 80% of small and midsize businesses have implemented work-from-home options for their employees. That’s according to 1,498 CEOs and other leaders of small and midsize businesses who responded to the May Vistage CEO Confidence Index survey.  

Businesses have been able to maintain or improve productivity during the shutdown by using technology that enables remote work. The ability to leverage technology helped employees stay at home and keep themselves, their families and their communities safe.

As the country enters the phased plans for reopening, businesses are looking at how they bring employees back to the office safely. From the business side, return-to-work plans include new employee policies, new office configurations and new creative scheduling to meet recommended safety guidelines.

But returning to work is more than an operational or policy issue. There are human elements that leaders must consider as well. Every one of us has been impacted by and reacted to this pandemic differently. Leaders not only need to consider the physical safety of their team, but develop plans that also address the emotional needs of employees. Here are three considerations for accommodating those emotional needs.

1. Create an environment of physical AND psychological safety

Most return-to-work plans have a mitigation strategy focused on physical safety, which is table stakes for getting people in the door. But once your team is on site, leaders need to ensure there is an environment that encourages communication so that everyone can share their perspective and hear the perspectives of others.

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, notes that one of the key components of effective teams is psychological safety. According to Edmondson, psychological safety is “the belief that a conversation is safe for interpersonal risk taking—that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.”

The pandemic has ignited different emotions for each person in your company, and as a leader, a people-first approach is critical. Leaders should acknowledge that individuals will have different thresholds and expectations for social interaction during the pandemic. Create the time for team members to voice their thoughts with coworkers, starting at the executive level so that the team is aligned on how to accommodate differences as they arise.

2. Balance individuals’ desired social contract with new policies

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes defined a social contract as “the condition in which people give up some individual liberty in exchange for some common security.” While your return-to-work plan may include all of the requisite policies about hygiene, social distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) that are part of the global measures taken to protect public health, these requirements are sparking controversy in society—not all individuals have come to accept these as part of their social contract. Wearing masks has become politicized, and everyone has different thresholds for what they are comfortable with beyond the current guidelines. But the bottom line is that while each individual has a right to their views and a judgement-free environment is important for morale, your policies need to set the guiding rules—not personal preferences.

3. Accommodate those who are vulnerable

Some businesses will continue to offer remote working for employees even once states begin to open. The ability to work from home should be equal opportunity for all employees as long as there is no impact on productivity or the ability to perform basic business functions. While some work functions may not be able to be performed remotely, there will be individuals that have valid reasons for not returning to a physical workplace who may request exemptions or accommodations.

The most obvious are people who are in at-risk categories, whether they have underlying conditions or are in an at-risk demographic group. Employees caring for children or a family member may also ask for special accommodations. And while their needs are covered in the Families First Coronavirus Act, creating opportunities for them to work remotely can create a win-win for the employee and for the business. The final category of employees to consider are those that have fear or anxiety about being exposed—anxiety is a very real impact of the pandemic which leaders need to be sensitive to as well. These instances should be considered by managers and leaders, and guidelines should be created for managers to help them address each scenario.

How will you shape your culture as your employees return back to the office?

Dr. Gustavo Grodnitzky, author and thought leader on company culture, advises leaders that “the decisions you make today are the seeds of your culture tomorrow.” Grodnitsky offers business leaders a three-step approach to supporting and communicating with employees:

1. Lead with empathy to understand employee experiences and situations.

2. Ask how you can help.

3. Share facts and information.

Learn more in 5 ways to strengthen your culture during COVID-19.

When leaders take steps to address these three components of the human side of returning to work, they build a culture of respect for employees’ emotional and psychological needs. While taking physical precautions such as social distancing and sanitizing the office are important first steps to re-opening your workplace, showing your employees that you will make reasonable accommodations for their personal needs will go a long way. Bookend your new policies with empathy and clear communication to help create a safe space—physically and mentally—for all.


Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Anne Petrik

As Vice President of Research for Vistage, Anne Petrik is instrumental in the creation of original thought leadership designed to inform the decision-making of CEOs of small and midsize businesses. These perspectives — shared through repo

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