As people return to the office, it’s necessary to talk about people’s safety and comfort level regarding masks and vaccinations.
The debate has become politicized, and workers may feel uncomfortable with discussing it openly. At the same time, leaders are responsible for creating a safe work environment. They also have an opportunity to limit distractions of returning to the office.
This article will not review scientific evidence or take sides on the issue. Instead, we’ll cover:
The first step is to create a safe space to discuss company COVID-19 policies and comfort levels with the guidelines.
In some top-down organizations, the tendency can be just to announce the policies matter-of-factly. This can backfire if people feel their freedoms are being unnecessarily restricted and a more nuanced approach is warranted.
When employees harbor resentment of any kind, it can come out in their performance and interpersonal relationships, so it’s best to find ways to address people’s sentiments. Follow best practices for communication.
Following are some of the methodologies that companies can use to address polarization of the issues around COVID-19 restrictions:
Depending on your company structure, you may have a top-down decision, a decision made by a representative group, or an open policy that is still being adjusted through a reiterative feedback process.
No matter how you are taking the decision, creating multiple communications channels for setting the policies will ensure that you get the message through and get feedback about how the policies are landing with employees.
Keep in mind the guidelines for synchronous versus asynchronous communication when setting up the announcement and feedback processes.
Wherever possible, providing options to your employees allows people to work productively and under conditions where they are most comfortable. You may provide different working conditions or allow people to customize their working experience. Options to consider include:
Get creative with your team in finding solutions to concerns that come up around return to work. Keep open office hours for your teams to make suggestions directly, and have a suggestion box for anonymous submissions of ideas.
When it comes to mask-wearing, you can take several directions. You might require masks of everyone in the company or of subsets of people, for example those who have exposure to customers on a regular basis. Alternately, you might have departments or groups who sit together make a decision together.
Most organizations have policies based on risk levels and government mandates.
High risk employees, such as healthcare workers, require high-grade personal protective equipment. Medium-risk workers, such as retail or customer-facing workers probably should also have mask requirements, not just for themselves but also for customers.
Also, expect to see signs in customer-service areas signifying if the employees have been vaccinated, possibly as a substitute for masking. If there’s a plastic barrier and the employees are vaccinated, your organization may feel comfortable with a no-masks-required policy for customer-facing jobs.
For low-risk employees, such as outdoor workers and people in private offices, you may have a policy requiring wearing masks only in public areas, such as conference rooms or lunchrooms.
Suppose you are in an area or industry where most people have access to vaccination. In that case, you might decide that masks are no longer required if you have a policy that allows anyone to continue to work at home or provides mask-only office space.
In other words, you can ask employees to make their own decision—but only on the condition they have the option to continue to protect their own safety if they don’t want to interact without a mask.
Letting teams decide their own policy
If mask-wearing is decided on a team-by-team basis, make sure that the decision-making process is fair—which in this case is not the same as majority rule. Consensus or unanimous approval is probably most appropriate in this case. If one person feels in danger, then all others need to wear masks. Or, on the other hand, if one person cannot wear a mask for health reasons, the group may need to establish a policy that all other people can accept and live with.
Increasing worker safety
Open space can be a major issue when it comes to going back to work.
Some office buildings have been renovated to place more protection between employees in cubicles, and to upgrade ventilation systems so that they get fresh air circulation. Modified cubicles can add to the “sweatshop” feel of an office, so this approach can be counterproductive when it comes to productivity and comfort of workers. Enlarging cubicles, requiring vaccination, breaking up open space into offices, and having alternate-day working hours are all ways that you can continue to use open space while increasing worker safety.
Should you provide masks?
Best practices dictate if a company requires masks, the company should provide the masks to employees. You could have disposable masks available at the office entrance or get reusable masks with the company logo for everyone. For customer-facing employees, you may want to have a standard that represents your company’s image, just like any company with a dress code for customer-facing employees.
Creative ways to encourage mask-wearing
If you have a mask policy, and some team members are not wearing their masks properly, make sure to establish a comfortable or standard way for co-workers to request that they do.
For example, you could implement some kind of symbol system, for example, have disposable masks that people could put on the other person’s chair to remind them that there are people in the room who are bothered when they do not wear a mask. Someone might not have the guts to say it to someone’s face, but if they can place a mask on the person’s chair when nobody else is looking, they can signal their discomfort without having to confront anyone.
If you have a more playful culture, you could create a game where people call one another out, and anyone who gets “3 strikes” has to buy a dozen donuts for the team.
Let’s face it: nobody enjoys wearing a mask all day.
In some places, having a vaccination means you no longer need a mask or social distancing. In others, people with vaccinations still wear masks in public. Some workplaces, such as broadcast studios, have stayed open by requiring regular testing of all employees.
It’s worth finding out how your employees feel about exposing their vaccination status or about working with others who have been vaccinated and therefore no longer feel the need to mask.
You can also set up rapid testing for those who aren’t vaccinated, so that everyone can feel safe in a mask-optional environment. Temperature tests are required in many public restaurants and entertainment venues, and adding rapid testing or weekly PCR testing can provide a level of confidence for people who need or want to work mask-free.
If you are going to allow more leniency for people who have been vaccinated, requiring them to show their vaccination papers makes sense. Even if you trust your employees, requiring proof is protection for those who didn’t get vaccinated and for yourself if anyone questions the policy, or if anything goes wrong. While some people may feel it’s an invasion of their privacy or a breach of trust, as an employer you need to have everyone’s safety in mind, so just hoping things are fine isn’t good enough.
Whatever you do, make sure to comply with local regulations. This can be a blessing, because it means that you can depolarize the subject by saying you are simply complying with legal requirements.
In this case, you do need standard and psychologically comfortable ways of enforcing policy. That is, you don’t want to create a “policing” type environment in your workplace or set up certain employees to always be the “bad guy” in reminding others to wear masks.
As mentioned above, clear signals, polite reminders, and even games can diffuse the discomfort of reminding people to adhere to the rules.
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