The plight of transparency for businesses during the COVID19 pandemic has taken on a difficult trajectory for some organizations. Repeatedly, the questions surrounding how much information to share get asked and the advice varies from open the gates to hold onto as much as possible. The answer lives somewhere in the middle.
A favorite fear is that of gossip and rumor. People crave information and when they don’t get it, they fill in the blanks. Business owners, directors and managers have had experience dealing with this type of workplace distraction in the past, and, as with most of these experiences, are now overly cautious about sharing anything. Fool me once…
However, post-COVID19, the impact of many of these business decisions and strategies may hit employees differently. We are not talking about vapid water cooler conversation, but rather, financial and professional stability. These employees are dependent upon their compensation to support families, to pay for housing & schooling, to put food on the table, to keep bills paid on time, etc. It is about the basics of living. The struggle is not about who is gossiping about whom, but rather, it is about how will I function and live.
Employees need to know, also, how health and safety will be handled upon a return to the workplace. Now hear this: No workplace will be germ-free. The CDC and OSHA are not mandating that companies free their environment from every virus and sickness-producing microbe. Of course, there are suggested guidelines (with some state mandated regulations) to minimize their infection. Businesses will be adopting new procedures as a result and these need to be shared with employees. They want to know what is being planned.
And on top of this, you can actually use this time of information sharing to open a door for input. Introducing (or worse, maintaining) an atmosphere of “do what we say regardless of what your concerns may be” is not in keeping with many of your posted company values let alone reflective of the type of productive culture desired. It is okay to ask staff what they think about workplace safety, timelines, production and conditions. This is not an open-ended call for every idea to be enacted. That is impossible, so set the expectations regarding gathering opinions and desires.
I got to be involved with an employee who is requesting a personal bathroom be installed at the workplace. She shared with the company owner that she would not be able to return to work unless she had her own private bathroom. She acknowledged that the company had already issued return to work directions regarding the employee bathrooms. The company shared that there would be cleaning supplies and directions to wipe things down before and after personal usage. The employee appreciated these efforts but said she would feel more comfortable if they would build a separate bathroom for her. This is not likely a reasonable accommodation nor is it reflective of the majority of feedback you will get in asking the question.
Too many managers step back from inclusive collaboration due to the likes of the extreme example mentioned. Be thoughtfully transparent with what you know and what you think will be done while leaving room for comments and questions. Your staff may come up with a brilliant idea; it is more than possible, I promise. When we work together, the environment is ours, not theirs. That is the best foundation for a return to work strategy.
Lastly, for all employees, remember that this is new territory for everyone. Your managers and business leaders/owners were not given a playbook on “Pandemics and Business Function” at any point in their career. They are most likely doing the best they can. If you have suggestions or concerns, look to enter conversation graciously. It may be an easy slide to an accusatory tone when it comes to protecting health and safety. Instead, be deliberate about ensuring a collaborative tone, free from blame, to determine a path for action and for compliance, where required. We keep hearing that “together, we are better.” It’s true.
And when any of you hear a co-worker start a conversation using, “Well, I heard…,” stop that person. Challenge where they heard it. You will want your efforts to be based upon fact. And even then, you will want to take those facts back to the source in a way that invites conversation, not consternation.
Ultimately, we must remember and show that we have each other’s best interests at heart and in mind. The return to work strategies are for all, not for some. Thinking broadly will help both managers and staff approach transparent collaboration thoughtfully. We need to encourage such critical thinking. Our workplaces need us to do so.