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:
- Tips for talking about COVID safety with your team
- Options available for different kinds of mask policies
- How to help make each employee feel safe: both psychologically and physically
- Sample mask policy at work (scroll to the end)
Depolarizing the topic
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:
- Discuss the processes that were in place to create the policies. Find ways to make the decision-making process representative and fair, and allow people to have input into the process.
- Allow employees to have input on COVID-19, and make the results anonymous but transparent so that everyone can see the sentiment across the organization. If people feel the process was fair and representative, they will understand the reasoning and be more likely to comply without resentment even if they disagree.
- If the policies are made based on scientific data, legal requirements, or other sources that are not from the employees, make that information transparent, as well as the risks the company would be making in terms of its own liability, if they decided differently.
- Create a system where people who disagree with the policies can make requests for work-from-home or other requests that would allow them to keep their jobs but still maintain their safety, preferences, and freedoms.
- Create safe ways for people to remind one another to comply with the regulations or appeal without worrying about consequences if they “report” on their coworkers.
- Set up some ground rules for a dialogue between people with differing opinions. The purpose of the conversation is not to “win” the debate but to understand one another’s position. If people can see their co-workers’ perspectives, it reduces tension.
How to talk about COVID safety with your team
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.
- Distribute the policy information through official communication through video and written documents explaining the policies.
- Post notices that are easy to understand, with great visuals, throughout the office. We’ve all seen these signs in public places, so use the same symbolism that everyone has come to understand.
- Create team-level or location-level discussions for teams to come together on what works for them and to support one another. If the issue is divisive within a team, make sure you have professional communications facilitators to make sure everyone is heard and feels safe.
- Offer multiple channels for one-on-one meetings about the COVID-19 policies at your company. If someone knows their manager feels strongly one way or another, they may not be comfortable telling them that they don’t feel safe or that they feel their freedoms are being violated by the policies. People need to have options for who they can talk to in confidence about the problem.
- Have clear and safe channels for getting questions answered about the policies.
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:
- Alternating days in office and work from home, along with options for some people to always work from home. Using the right tech can make WFH easier.
- Outdoor physical meetings, or workplace locations with open-air options, large windows, etc.
- Return to work only for people who have had the vaccine, if you feel comfortable asking people whether they were vaccinated (see below).
- Shifts that respect certain populations. For example, high-risk employees work on shifts with people who are vaccinated or post-COVID or mask-only vs. no-mask shifts.
- Set up working areas that are mask-only if your company’s policy does not require masks. Anyone who sets a meeting in those spaces recognizes that all participants in the meeting do need to wear a mask.
- Field-based meetings rather than headquarters-based meetings, to reduce transmissions between multiple locations.
- Allowing conference calling from your office for meetings, even if it is physically possible to meet. Having half on-screen and half off-screen meetings can be awkward, so make it explicit that you can have a conference call with people in your office if one or more participants feels they don’t want to gather in a group.
- Have special conference rooms for outside visitors to the office with more stringent requirements for visitors and sanitation of those rooms.
- Offer shuttle services or safe transportation methods for people who might otherwise need to use public transportation which exposes them to crowded spaces on their way to and from work.
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.
Mask etiquette at work
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.
Should you ask for vaccination or test status?
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.
Example Mask Policy at Work
Use this sample mask policy email as a template for your own employee communications: