As we struggle with fluid Governmental policies, planning for a return of colleagues and the imagineering of a mid-Covid workplace presents challenges. Our experience has been that once we have done all of our preparation, the success of the return of our colleagues may actually rely not on the scale and depth of our planning, but actually on how patient we are.
At NJC, we had thoroughly researched the social distancing requirements, the enhanced cleaning requirements and the signage that would regulate and inform our wayfinding. We had specified the reactive capabilities we would need to be able to address the inevitable concerns of the first person with any kind of ailment; we believed we were ready to return to London.
We already understood that reticence and insecurity would be in abundance and we believed we had thought about how we would approach this. Surely, the new and ubiquitous corporate signage, a worryingly large amount of highly visible cleaning staff and a permeating smell of alcohol gel is sufficient for both process compliance and personal soothing.
What we were not prepared for, was the degree of patience we would need with both ourselves and our colleagues, as we sought to unwind years of conditioning on how we behave at work, in the first few seconds of return. I have found myself standing either on, or next to the new instructions (don’t shake hands, face the walls in the lift, stand back from the receptionist) wondering exactly what I should be doing and why I wasn’t responding as instructed. What was wrong with me.
Why was I so delighted to be back, but taken aback with how different the identical office I left some week go, felt. Where was the perpetually helpful colleague that I rely on? Why did I not want to follow the new one-way system, the face mask policy or the new exit only door, that continually defeated me.
If we accept that it is human nature to feel comfortable with the familiar and anxious in the face of the unknown, we are preparing ourselves for the challenge.
Received wisdom says that around 40% of our behaviour is actually habit. When we think we are making decisions, we are often actually following habitual behaviour, with habits consisting of three components – trigger, routine and reward. We commonly revert to routine (the actual habit) when we try to analyse a behaviour, but the secret to breaking free from your new apparently non-compliant behaviour is to focus upon the trigger and the reward.
The second secret is that we need something to replace the habit with, as this will make the change less confrontational. Apparently, a habit actually forms a neurological pathway and it takes 21 days to begin forging a new pathway to replace your new, apparently disobedient self. Whatever the neurological timescale for behavioural refresh, it is clear it is not overnight, nor in the early days of return, which is particularly important to remember if you are following a cohort or phased return strategy. We need to be particularly patient with returning colleagues who face a myriad of changes, who are expected to embrace and comply with them almost immediately.
We must use our experiences to soften our response to habitual reversion and perhaps rather than suggesting that we ‘can’t go that way now’, it would be better replaced by “I did that as well”.
We must also accept that our sense of team may have been affected by the enforced absence. The inevitable trepidation of return was almost balanced by the expectation of seeing the team again, but is undermined because not everyone was there, and even those that were there, were behaving weirdly.
We can plan, we can prepare physically, but we must work out how we support the new normal. For our part, our almost perpendicular learning curve in supporting our colleagues and softening the scale of the difference, was better served by a healthy dose of consistent patience.
NJC has impressed upon colleagues and customers the need to communicate in advance, in a welcoming and supportive manner, the return plan, the extensive signage and what we should and shouldn’t be doing. We should explain that the healthy complement of cleaning staff is there to ensure our safety and is not a reflection of the risk.
We have impressed upon our teams the need to be ready to explain any products we are using and their application processes, as further reassurance that our efforts are to ensure we return safely and that our conversations are part of the process of breaking the previous habit.
Things are going to be different for quite some time, and the workplace will both be different and feel different. We must accept that the latter will not be best supported by signage, or handwashing, but by patience and the reassurance that we are returning stronger, together.