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We know getting back into the office after the shutdown is going to be challenging. But there are things we can do to ease this transition for ourselves and our coworkers or employees—and this is a prime opportunity to rethink what kind of work culture we are creating each day. We can let this time of change bring about a workplace transformation that benefits us all.

First, take stock

We can learn so much from our response to the shutdown. We’ve seen evidence of our own resilience and strength, and also of our stress points and the situations that activate us or put our brains into the red zone. To take stock of our own responses, and to prepare ourselves to navigate this next set of adaptations, we can ask ourselves these questions:

  • What was my experience of the self-isolation phase?
  • What is unique about my situation?
  • What are my early physical signs of anxiety?
  • What do I need to do
    • to exercise control when too activated?
    • to help myself adapt better?
  • Who can I call when feeling anxious or distressed?
  • How do I attend to my own needs and obligations as I return to the workplace?
  • What conversations do I need to have with my team leaders or team members to help me succeed?
  • As a Black or Indigenous person, how am I making sure that I am processing my trauma and practicing self-care to survive in these times and stay in my green brain?
  • As a white person, how am I working to make the workplace safe for my Black and Indigenous coworkers?
  • What habit, attitude, or experience do I want to take with me into the new phase?

Adapting as a team

It takes strong leadership to create the culture of care and trust we will need during this transition and for the rest of the pandemic. When we re-enter the workplace, we need to adapt not just individually, but as a team. We can do this by:

  • Paying attention to how we communicate with each other. Be clear and calm so as not to startle hypervigilant minds. Be kind and patient to soothe others and ourselves.
  • Watching out for each other. If someone seems shaky when they come in the door, we can check in and see how their commute went. If you can tell your coworker is feeling the weight of the world, ask him how he’s feeling and how you can help. Remember that your racialized coworkers, particularly Black and Indigenous people, are likely to be feeling particularly traumatized right now because of recent killings. If you are white, allow racialized coworkers space to process any trauma they may be experiencing, and make sure to call in white coworkers if they are not also allowing that space.
  • Asking each other for help. By asking for help, we do two things: we get the help we need, and we also normalize the very act of asking. We create conditions that will allow others to ask for help too.

What a lot of this comes down to is prioritizing the humanity of our coworkers over process and even (gasp!) productivity. We need to put humans first and do the work of connecting with each other and facing our vulnerabilities together, and create emotional safety.

Creating emotional safety

Emotional safety is a series of attitudes of respect and appreciation for self and other, and it develops in and deepens an atmosphere of mutual trust, appreciation, and support. It ensures trust and genuine emotional connections, which are vital as we all put our physical safety in each other’s hands.

We can create emotional safety in a workplace by valuing respect and showing appreciation for each other, even under stress. For example, in morning meetings, make a point of thanking coworkers or employees for specific tasks they’ve accomplished, no matter how much is left to do. And we can demonstrate mutual trust and support while navigating uncertainty together; if John disagrees with the direction for your report, for example, thank him for his insight and acknowledge that he is, like you, working to make the best document possible.

A new kind of workplace

It’s urgent we do this work in response to the pandemic. But to be clear, this is how every workplace should always operate: with trust, safety, and respect.

As difficult and fearful as this time is, it’s offering us an opportunity to radically transform how we relate to each other in the workplace (and out of it!). Few of us in Canada have experienced such raw collective vulnerability and uncertainty. Add to that the upwelling of understanding of privilege and inequities and the harm it inflicts on racialized people, and it’s undeniable that we are living in unprecedented cultural conditions. That means our response can be unprecedented too—it’s a time when swift changes are possible.

Are you noticing changes in your own workplace? Have you been able to apply lessons from the shutdown to your return to work?

If you’re a leader seeking to create a trusting and supportive workplace and you need help getting there, get in touch.