About 12 weeks ago, the Healthcare Consortium, like every business in our area, was challenged to respond to the public health emergency created by COVID-19. Of course, as a local charitable organization providing direct services to residents throughout Columbia and Greene counties, much of our focus was on how to meet the needs, both old and new, of our community. But we were also challenged in another, more routine and widely shared way: like every employer, of every stripe and type, we have been challenged to figure out, first, how to care for our employees while they were still working in the office, then to hastily get them out of the office, and finally, to safely shepherd them back to it now.
There was nothing easy about this for our business, or, I suspect, for any other. In the early days of the crisis in March, it seemed as though we were literally making it up from one day to the next, and just managed to keep pace with new orders that were being issued daily. Although the process of returning to work in the office is more planful and orderly, there still is nothing easy about bringing staff back, either. However, it has not been without its reward; it has been a learning and, I hope, growth experience for the organization and for me personally. Here are a few of the things we have learned, offered as food for thought, especially for other employers:
Who is worried and what they worry about may surprise us, but it shouldn’t matter. We have probably all experienced some surprise at which people in our lives are fearful and may also have been surprised by the nature and strength of their fears. For my part, I learned that perfectly reasonable people are fearful about returning to work AND that their fears are perfectly reasonable. Yet, neither insight should matter. As employers, our role is not to judge our employees for having worries or make some kind of determination about whether their worries are warranted. Instead, the role of employers is to figure out how to work with their employees so they can work through and past their fears. It’s a partnership, and therefore must begin with respect for the employee and their ideas, no matter who they are or what they think.
Assessing risk and tolerating it are two different things. While we are all digesting more or less the same information about COVID-19, and can rely on that to objectively assess the risk to our community, families, and selves, deciding what amount of risk we can tolerate is a different process entirely. While a person’s risk tolerance can involve an objective weighing of external facts and individual circumstances, it is also informed by much more subjective things like temperament and world view. In other words, given the same risk, the tolerance for that risk can vary significantly from one person to another, and neither person is wrong.
The way employees feel about returning to work will be varied and complicated. For every person who has enjoyed and thrived in a work-at-home scenario, there is someone else who is desperate to return to the office. Similarly, for every person who is being vigilant about hand hygiene, face coverings, and social distancing, there is someone else who is taking a cavalier approach to these same measures. My inclination was to regard staff as belonging to one category or another, but recently I have discovered that some employees don’t fall neatly into either group, and instead have a complicated mix of competing feelings. For instance, I have learned that it’s possible to have an employee who is eager to return to work in the office AND simultaneously fearful about doing so. As employers, we must have the imagination to consider the variety and complexity of the responses to returning to work, and develop strategies to acknowledge and address them all.
A successful return to work will require everyone, including staff, to be at their best. Staff differences in attitudes and approach will play out a 1,000 ways once we’re back in a shared workplace, and as much preparation as an employer makes, much will rely on employees and their own attitudes and conduct. There will be the worker who neglects, either consciously and intentionally, or subconsciously and unintentionally, to wear a face covering in the presence of a co-worker. And there will also be the co-worker who gets very upset about this. Their interaction with each other will have to be managed, to not only ensure compliance with business requirements, but also to keep the peace between and among workers. Moreover, employers must be on the alert for harassment and discriminatory conduct. In short, employers will have to create a workplace that is “safe” in every sense of the word.
Returning to shared work environments has its challenges, to be sure, but it also provides employers with an opportunity to communicate concern and respect for our employees and to promote a culture in which all workers put a priority on the care and comfort of each other. If there’s an “upside” to the disruption that COVID has wreaked on all our work lives, I think it might be that.
The Healthcare Consortium is a local charitable organization with a mission of improving access to healthcare and supporting the health and well-being of the residents in our rural community. The agency is located at 325 Columbia St. in Hudson. For more information: visit www.columbiahealthnet.org or call 518-822-8820.