After several weeks of working remotely, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, you are now on standby waiting for your official back to work notification.
Soon you will resume your professional activities. At your downtown office, at the shop or back on the road again you will go. You will be two metres away from your colleagues, with or without a mask and surrounded by plexiglass, or not. You will follow all your employers’ new procedures while continuing to wash your hands by singing “Happy birthday”, as prescribed by Doctor Tam.
It will not be a return to normal.
To prepare for this new work reality, I present you with some scenarios and offer you wise words and good gestures to allow you to continue to shine at work, as well as all ensuring your safety, security and that of your business community.
I – YOUR COMMUTE
On public transportation
With telework on the rise, shifts work and a reduction in the number of cars on the road, peak hours will be diluted. One of the benefits of the pandemic could be a few minutes earned. Yay!
When doors to the bus, the subway or the train open, follow the out before in rule. Step to the side, let the passengers come out and then in you go.
With physical distancing practices in place, fewer seats will be available. Be on the lookout to offer your seat or assistance to an older passenger, a future mom, a person with reduced mobility or a parent with a toddler.
Keep your packages with you and your umbrella by your side. Your scattered objects are an extension of you. They minimize the space available to others.
What if someone breaks the rules of physical distancing?
It is best to distance yourself and to trust the task of a reminder to the authorities; a manager, a passenger or someone in uniform. Patience, kindness and empathy should be your new mantra. You do not know the other’s concerns. Give the others the other the benefit of the doubt of being in their bubble, sorting through their troubles.
Remember the contagious powers of your smile, even with a mask your eyes twinkle and that a simple “Hello”. Share them. They are simple gestures that show solidarity.
At Door Crossings
More than ever, to avoid colliding with others, it is important to practise the basics of etiquette. One misstep and you could be infected. Etiquette is logical: empty before filling. Those who leave, come out first. Then it’s your turn to enter.
When hosting a client and inviting him to the board room, ask him to follow you. It is up to you to lead the way. He does not go first. State what you are doing. “Please follow me.” Walk through the door and wait for the other on the other side. If your route involves detours, announce them in advance.
On the Elevator
If pre-pandemic, you rarely had to wait more than a minute for the next elevator, you will likely now have to queue and wait for your turn.
If you take advantage of this time to make calls, be aware that others can hear you. It may be best to stick to texting. Avoid talking business and never to mention people’s names, especially when your words are not flattering.
Here too let others out before entering. Observe. Check if you can respect the two metres of distance. If it is not safe, wait for the next elevator.
This option is gaining in popularity. Some choose stairs to get in shape to lose the extra pounds gained in lockdown and others will choose the stairs in lieu of waiting.
Going up or going down, just like when you are driving, keep right. Pre-pandemic, on stairs or escalators, you passed on the left. With the safe distance of two metres, given the limited width of steps, this acceleration will now rarely be possible.
Expect steps to have arrows to indicate the flow of traffic. Plexiglass or other barriers could divide and direct upwards and downwards traffic. Regardless, you will have to single file, one behind the other with two metres in front of you and two metres behind you.
Formerly and still social today, Madame steps in front of Monsieur, on the way up. Walking down, it is the opposite: Madame is behind Monsieur. In both cases, if the lady misses a step, the gentleman can help stabilize her.
At work, men and women are equal. Whomever arrives at the step landing first goes first.
If someone with a cane has chosen to take the stairs, offer to let them pass in front of you. Remember your mantra: patience, kindness and empathy.
II– MEETING WITH YOUR COLLEAGUES AND YOUR CUSTOMERS
Before the pandemic, not a day went by without you giving at least five handshakes a day and depending on your industry, perhaps even a few hugs a week to members of your business community. Your embraces are now exclusively for those with whom you live.
Alternatives to “touched” greetings were also favored in the Middle Ages in times of the plague. Back then King Henry IV prohibited “la bise”. Since February, before the official announcement of the pandemic, in anticipation of flu season, the World Health Organization encouraged us to practise contactless greetings. Always start your salutations with a smile and a friendly eye contact. Here are some choices:
- The classic yoga namaste;
- Hand on your heart à la Céline;
- A back and forth wave à la Elizabeth II, Her Majesty the Queen;
- A mini-reverence of the mid-body or of the head; and
- The forearm lift with your palm facing the other person.
“Hi! I am so very happy to see you. As you can see, I am practising physical distancing.” Depending on your mood, you could add “If you want, we can plan a virtual coffee at break”.
Be prepared. The once trivial “How’s it going?” could now be answered with sad news of illness, death. It could be a much longer than usual update. Or it could be the opposite of a very short and curt encounter. Some are very anxious and may even be living in fear. They will want to rapidly continue walking down the hallway. Expect a quick “Fine thank you” without even asking how you are. Be empathetic. You do not know the troubles they are sorting.
III – HOW TO ANSWER STICKY QUESTIONS
The lockdown was not been experienced the same way by all. You may have already had one-on-one conversations. You could be aware of some of your team members’ situations. Or some of them have been very discreet about their realities and their practices as they relate to this pandemic. After weeks apart, soon you will find yourself on a break, with two metres between and your colleague. You could have divergent opinions. Here are some suggestions:
An employee tells you about a conspiracy theory on the origins of the coronavirus.
“Hmmm…. Interesting… I am not informed enough to discuss this. I just stick to the news shared by our government.”
A colleague disagrees with the government’s return to school plan.
“My partner and I have discussed this for our family. We prefer to keep our opinions private.”
For all these awkward conversations, be aware that if someone pushes you to share beyond your comfort zone, it is always appropriate to excuse yourself to go back to work.
“Excuse me, I have a lot of work ahead of me.”
You find out that a peer did not follow the government’s guidelines and visited relatives.
If you are a manager, your role is to make sure that all follow the rules by foremost being good citizens. This conversation should be private and could start with:
“You are important to us. We need you in good health, without presenting any risk of contamination. We need to be able to count on you and your obedience to all the government’s guidelines. We ask that you comply at all times.” Continue by reviewing your company’s policy.
As noted at the start of this article, no one can predict the future. This transition requires a lot of observation, adjustments in behaviour as people respond to instructions, constant communication and, yes, repetition of new policies and procedures. When writing this article, we are in the middle of the National Mental Health Week. I remind you of the airplane safety metaphor “Put your mask first before placing one on the person that you want to help.” Take good care of yourself first. After staying in for so long, you don’t have to keep everything inside. If needed, confide, share and ask for help. You are important to me. You are important to us.
Translated from my published article in La référence de l’Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines du Québec (c) Julie Blais Comeau