Despite the record breaking speed at which the Belgian booster campaign is being rolled out, the rise of Omicron has us all feeling concerned about what more this winter will have in store for us. Most companies started reboarding as soon as restrictions lifted over the summer, with many developing frameworks for a hybrid workplace. Business, after all, must continue. And although many employees missed their co-workers and are happy to be back, others are feeling more hesitant about the shared workplace says Willemijn van Dommelen of PRR Consultancy.
'The symbolic mask that we wear for work – at work you are in function, at home you can be your authentic self – has cracked now our professional and private lives have become so entwined.'
On the one hand we have the employer who feels they lost a certain amount of control of their team during lockdown, because what precisely were staff up to when they were at home? And on the other we have the employees who quite enjoy having the flexibility to walk the dog mid-afternoon or run a quick load of laundry during working hours. Understandably companies are keen to keep their employees in the workplace as it helps them feel more in control. And, of course, social cohesion remains essential to a strongly aligned team. But as long as targets, deadlines, and KPIs are being met, is there a problem? And how can you create a safe, respectful and balanced working environment for all?
ROI vs. ROT
“People need structure, and work-from-home has blurred boundaries,” says Willemijn. “Before Covid you’d get into your car, drive to work, do your eight hours and then return home again. Things were clear. WFH means the kids asking for a snack, a delivery that needs signing for, screens freezing mid-meeting and questions needing to be repeated… The symbolic mask that we wear for work – at work you are in function, at home you can be your authentic self – has cracked now our professional and private lives have become so entwined. Calling a colleague at 4pm is perfectly reasonable, but experience tells us they might already have poured themselves a glass of wine after a full working day.”
“We’ve always been told that, in order to be successful, we must work hard. But what precisely does that mean? Is it working from nine to five, is it being busy-busy-busy whenever someone asks how you are? What precisely is the measure of success? Companies tend to think in return-on-investment: what they get in return for the employee’s remuneration. But perhaps we should start talking about return-on-time – or ROT – instead of ROI: if you are better able to focus on that report when the house is quiet, then surely that represents better value for the company. However, if your boss rings while you’re showering at 10am because you were working late, they might think you are slacking, even though the opposite is true. It’s hugely important to understand that perspectives differ and a lot of misunderstandings are due to perception.”
Going from the relative peace and quiet (and safety) of your home office to an open plan space with lots of people can be quite stressful. Even more so now that Omicron has made its entry. And you aren’t alone if you’re feeling hesitant about returning to life ‘as before’: a recent study by the American Psychological Association reported that 49 percent of surveyed adults anticipated being uncomfortable about returning to in-person interactions when the pandemic ends. It found that 48 percent of those who have received a COVID vaccine said they felt the same way. This sense of anxiety is known as the ‘cave syndrome’ and the back-and-forth between the loosening and tightening of restrictions doesn’t exactly help.
“People are understandably nervous about working in a shared environment,” confirms Willemijn. “Because what is company policy? Vaccination is still a personal choice and (in theory) employers cannot force you to have one. Picture yourself sharing a meeting room with eight people, of whom four are wearing a mask. How does that make you feel? Are they unvaccinated or just anxious? People are becoming increasingly distrustful and judgemental of one another. Are you ‘woke’ or a ‘follower’? Which side of the fence are you on? And how do you address this as a team leader? Can you even address it?”
State Your Policy
“The right to privacy means you aren’t allowed to ask about someone’s vaccination status or beliefs. So what do you do? Are you going to discuss this openly with the team or respect individuals’ right to privacy? There is a case to be made for this because you are legally obliged to provide employees with a safe working environment. The two principles are diametrically opposed, so how can you reassure your team? A lot of organisations are struggling to work out how to deal with this. Because simply following government restrictions (or the lifting of them), isn’t a company policy you can build on. The national advisory group GEMS advises one thing and the politicians decide something else altogether. Understandably, faith in the powers that be is at an all-time low and you need your own company policy to reassure your team.”
In fact, a number of organisations have already openly stated their stance on the matter and you can argue it either way. ZNA announced vaccination to be a prerequisite for all new hires and Leaseplan made vaccination mandatory for its entire staff unless they want to work from home ‘forever’, as have Google and Facebook, to name but a few. This show of strength – get the jab or lose the job – although understandable, isn’t exactly respectful towards the individual and doesn’t make for a fully aligned team. So where do you go from here?
Shades of Grey
“We need to recognise how vulnerable we are all feeling, both as employers and as employees. Everyone is deliberating, trying to work out what is ‘right’ moving forward, but the truth is nobody knows. There is no black or white; only shades of grey. We need to find a way for employers to be both respectful and vulnerable towards their employees and I think HR has a vital role to play. People need to be able to voice what makes them feel (un)safe without fear of being judged. Last year proved how much we missed the cohesion that comes from spending time together – literally ‘teambuilding’ – now it is time to create balance and openness through conversation.”
“The good thing is that we’re seeing a lot of organisations invest in connection and mental wellbeing. And the amount of subsidies available in Belgium mean that you can invest without incurring any cost below the line. In fact, done right, you could even even ‘profit’ on the cost of remuneration – as well as profiting from stronger human capital – making it a win-win situation for all. Everyone knows about the KMO Portefeuille, but lesser known initiatives like ‘werkbaarheidcheques’ and ‘Vlaams opleidingsverlof’ are equally interesting.”
“It’s a shame that it’s so difficult to find your way around the red tape, but I feel employer and employee share the responsibility of finding out what is out there. Take the time to look around, really see what you need, what your people need; be it time management training or a workshop on diet and sleep. So much is available, as an employer, you’re almost morally obliged to take advantage of the opportunities. There really is no excuse to not invest in your people; every single sector is crying out for talent, so why risk losing your most valuable assets? If you’re not preventatively investing in your mental capital, you’re not doing enough to keep them on board.”