Who Wants a Hug? Navigating the Back to Business Transition

By Amy Averett, SAFE Institute

Amy is Director of the SAFE Institute, the professional training arm of The SAFE Alliance. SAFE brings 40+ years of violence prevention expertise to top businesses foster safe, respectful work spaces.

Recently I saw a friend I don’t communicate with regularly. As we fumbled awkwardly for conversation starters, I blurted out “So, how was your pandemic?”

As a full-on extrovert with pretty decent social skills, it was the best I could come up with. So much has happened over the past year — a global pandemic, isolation, political division and upheaval, a racial reckoning, in addition to the ‘normal’ life events. And professionally, many of us have been relegated to den or dining room table and Zoom as ‘the office’.

Where do we even start when we come back together with people outside our immediate circle, especially when we go back to working face-to-face?

As more people are vaccinated, and we understand more about how to contain COVID, business leaders are considering bringing their workforce back to the physical office in larger numbers. Many of us will be returning to in-person work with other humans in the next few months.

It’s no surprise that people will come back with a wide range of expectations and worries. Some want to hug everyone in sight and others wish they could work in their pj’s forever.

We’ve all experienced trauma in the last year, but it may not be the same trauma. Collectively we have experienced major losses and at the same time, it has also been a time of renewal and discovery. The bottom line is this:

The team that is coming back into the office is not the same team that went home ‘for a few weeks’ in March 2020.

With all of those experiences on our shoulders, we need to ask:

How do we set expectations about physical contact and shared spaces? How do we support our employees to set boundaries while also re-bonding as a group?

Consent in a COVID World

Programs across the SAFE Alliance teach the concept of consent and what it looks like in interpersonal relationships. It also applies to our return to the office.

One of our favorite consent acronyms is FRIES. Consent should be Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. In the post-COVID office, it might look like this:

  • Freely Given — both people feel free to say “yes” or “no” to wearing masks during a meeting without any coercion or fear of repercussions.
  • Reversible — “I thought I was ready to have lunch with you, but I’m realizing that the breakroom is a little close quarters for me and I’m not quite there yet.”
  • Informed — understanding both local health restrictions and company policies related to transmission risk, and acting accordingly.
  • Enthusiastic — this is the one that may be a bit tempered in the office (as compared to on a date), but it’s still important to look for verbal and nonverbal signals of whether the person is truly excited about the interaction, rather than operating from a sense of obligation or social pressure.
  • Specific — “Let’s meet in the conference room with the windows open. The downstairs meeting room isn’t very well-ventilated.”

Boundaries, Please

In a healthy office culture, team members are encouraged to set reasonable personal boundaries and expect to have them respected. When SAFE Institute trainers lead sexual harassment prevention training, we discuss the fact that asking a co-worker for a date probably doesn’t constitute harassment.

Refusing to take no for an answer, or giving the person a hard time for saying no, (i.e. not respecting the boundary they have set) definitely does.

The same argument can be applied here. In some ways, COVID has forced us to assert our boundaries, sometimes in creative ways. We’ve each learned our own ‘6 feet away’ dance when an unmasked neighbor comes down the sidewalk. We’ve had to find kind ways to tell Mom that she can’t cuddle the grandkids, as much as everyone needs that cuddle.

During the return the office, healthy boundaries look like:

  • Thinking about what you are and aren’t comfortable with, and thinking of creative solutions to share with your team and supervisor.
  • Understanding and upholding the company COVID policies and encouraging your team members to do the same.
  • Being attentive to both verbal and nonverbal cues you are getting from co-workers. If you aren’t sure what someone needs, clarify and follow their lead.
  • Respecting privacy. It’s possible that the reason the receptionist is so strict about taking temperatures is that he is lost a family member to COVID. He shouldn’t have to explain that to very person who walks through the door.

Big picture, we have a lot to navigate. People who have enjoyed their solitude might feel guilty admitting it to co-workers who have really struggled. People are still fearful. There’s so much we don’t know and we are all holding our breath to see what happens next.

What we do know for sure is that business teams need to have new conversations and establish new norms for how they do business.

Ed. note: SAFE is a nonprofit and a recognized, national leader on these topics. Several of their executives are Culturati members and have spoken at our events. I asked them to tell us a little bit more about what next steps might look like, in the case that any of you are interested. — Josh Jones-Dilworth

To help with the The Great Restart, the team at the SAFE Institute has expanded our successful harassment prevention training to give your team new skills for a successful return to the office.

Our goal is to give your team a safe and welcoming space to have big picture conversations so that everyone feels supported and as ready as possible.

Our expert trainers are currently conducting two-hour training sessions customized to each organization that:

  • Explore how to set and receive personal boundaries (verbal and non-verbal)
  • Build a shared understanding of consent (how to clearly ask for and give it)
  • Help team members recognize and address the effects of trauma
  • Practice identifying and eliminating micro-aggressions

The session also provides time for a facilitated discussion of each company’s office guidelines and allows employees to share their questions and concerns.

Some of our customers include: Alamo Drafthouse, Anaconda, Antone’s, Atchley & Associates, Bumble, BookPeople, Blue Leadership Collective, City of Austin, Compassionate Cultivation, Front Steps, JDI, Planet Fitness, Spicewood Springs Animal Hospital, Tatsu-Ya and Wheatsville Food Co-op.

We are currently piloting the SAFE Supported Business Certification with Good Work Austin, to provide ongoing training and support for their members.

For more information and pricing on our training and consultation options, go to www.safeinstitute.org or contact Amy and her team at safeinstitute@safeaustin.org



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Culturati Team

Culturati Team

Culturati is a community of CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors and other c-suite leaders who practice & study culture building and share our play books.