Life at Wave
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Life at Wave

A Guide to Returning to a Newly Imagined Workplace

Every webinar we listen to and article we read starts with “These are unprecedented times…”. We all know this — the real issue is, what do we do about it? There is so much complexity in navigating an environment that is volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous without a playbook. The truth is no one has done this before, and it is unprecedented. Without guidance from people with previous expertise, business leaders must suddenly become experts in public health and safety, mental health, and corporate communications–just to name a few.

A lot of time and attention has been devoted to figuring out how to reopen our office. And given the complexity of the topic, I’d like to share some of the thinking that we used at Wave. Our hope is to provide you with tools and possible solutions to help you formulate your own Return to the Workplace plan.

But first, some of you may be wondering why we’re bothering at all? Why don’t we just work from home until there is no more COVID-19? It’s important to remember everyone is managing through this unusual situation in different ways. Most companies, small and large, have sent surveys to their employees, and a trend seems to be emerging. A large group of people (approximately 60%-65%) have adjusted well after some initial discomfort; however, this is not their preferred way to live or work. This group would enjoy the flexibility of coming into the office 2–3 days a week and working from home the rest of the time. A smaller group (approximately 15%-20%) have truly embraced this change and find it liberating to work from home. This group likely won’t want much to change when things return to normal. But there is a group (approximately 15%-25%) who are truly struggling. For a variety of reasons, working from home full time is causing tremendous stress, anxiety, and in some cases even trauma. This group of people will be looking for support long after we get “back to normal”.

Many workplaces are focusing on overall survey results (80% of employees have reported being comfortable working from home) and making the decision to become “digital-first” by transitioning to a completely virtual office. When looking at the cost, time, and effort of reopening the office for 20% of the employee base, some employers may not see the value.

But I see this differently.

If we recorded the bell curve from above focusing on the same group of employees, but instead looked at their levels of suffering, the picture would be very different. Unfortunately, the small group of employees having a difficult time adjusting are also the ones experiencing the majority of the suffering. Why would we optimize or make long-term changes for a group who have identified as not needing support? Instead, I believe we should be looking at the 20% — the smaller subset of employees who are at home trying to cope with 80% of the suffering. By opening the office, those who choose to come in will follow the restrictions we put in place so everyone can feel safe returning.

Our number one concern is the health and safety of our employees, and we will not put that in jeopardy. Our decisions continue to be guided by information from public health officials, scientists, and data, and with that information, we update frameworks and protocols accordingly. Similar to how we decided to gradually reopen the office, we only act when we feel ready and safe to do so. And employee feedback indicates our approach is working:

“The difference to my energy, demeanour and productivity being in the office has been unreal. THANK YOU for making this happen.” — Angie, Director of Risk at Wave.

For the foreseeable future, working from home will continue to be an option for our employees, which is why we’ll continue to support those who choose to stay home. For many, the reality of coming into the office presents risks that are too high. These include concerns about taking public transportation, commuting into a more populated area, having a high-risk family member or dependents, or caring for children without school or daycare support. We’ve received positive feedback from those who are deciding to stay home, including Neil on our Wave Advisors team who said, “Thanks for all the effort towards helping us be comfortable and effective no matter where we want to work.”

Wave’s Return to the Workplace Plan

We worked as a team to solve the following five themes and created a playbook to detail our thinking. We’ve shared the playbook widely on social media so others can leverage our plan, but wanted to share the thinking behind it in an effort to help further.

#1 Managing fear and anxiety

Our world went from a safe place to live and work, to a place where every excursion was a health and safety risk for you and those around you. The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths were rising daily, which obviously occupied everyone’s minds. Simple chores like grocery shopping or visiting your dentist became difficult, uncomfortable, and eventually impossible with physical spaces shutting down. With time, we learned to step out and follow the new guidelines of social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands regularly to safely navigate our world again. But for many, the anxiety has grown to levels difficult to manage.

Not only are we worried about our own safety and the safety of our families, but also that of our friends, colleagues, and strangers around us. The anxiety of possibly going into the office with an unknown and asymptomatic case of COVID-19 and putting others at risk is a heavy burden to bear. We needed to create a safe but friendly way for our employees to understand what to do, while also ensuring they feel comfortable doing it.

#2 Upholding health and safety

The health and safety of our employees is always our first priority. We were determined to meet or exceed all public health and government recommended guidelines, as well as act with the utmost caution when dealing with situations not outlined in these resources.

#3 Celebrating social environments

For employees who are living alone and feeling isolated, having the option to return to the office can make a world of difference. Similarly, there are people who identify as extroverts and are energized by other people, so just seeing another friendly face, or leaving their homes to go into a bright and interactive environment can do so much to lift their spirits.

#4 Simplify the complicated

Having too much information can feel overwhelming. We used a four-stage color system (red, orange, yellow, green) with a set of clear guidelines and restrictions for each. Red is a complete shutdown, green is back to normal, and orange and yellow have slightly different safety regulations. Following a colour system allows everyone to quickly understand which stage we’re functioning in and how to behave without having to constantly refer back to a document.

#5 Remembering we’re all human

Working in front of a computer instead of face-to-face diminishes the human connection we feel towards one another. We become less connected, share fewer jokes, and misinterpret abruptness for anger. Humans are built to be social and rely on social cues. We need to have empathy for others and understand some people may be suffering in silence. We need to be patient, kind, and compassionate above all else right now. We worked hard to use humour, bright colours, and themes where we could, to communicate, “we are still the same place you know and love.”

We can’t predict what the new world expects of us, but we have time to prepare as best we can. The skills we’ve focused on developing in ourselves and within our teams are now more valuable than ever: empathy, flexibility, adaptability, effective communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving. These skills will help us be ready for scenarios that may be very different from what we once knew, and we must reprioritize to focus on what is truly important. We need to keep asking each other how we can help and support one another. I’m ready to do my part-I know you are too, and I hope our playbook helps.

Originally published at https://www.waveapps.com on September 16, 2020.

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Ashira Gobrin

Ashira Gobrin

Alchemist of Organizations — turning potential into performance through Purpose, Values and Great Leadership.