27 September 2023

Inspiring a return to the office: What managers can do

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine* says there are five things managers should never say about their return-to-work plan.

In some cases, the pandemic has shown many of us at our best. We’ve demonstrated resilience and an ability to come together as a community.

But irritability and frustration are mounting, too, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the dangerous Delta variant after thinking there was a glimmer of light on the horizon.

As many employers consider and reconsider their plans to return to the office, some managers are, intentionally or not, taking out these frustrations on their employees.

While the sentiments are normal, it’s unfair and unkind to employees who, like their managers, are coping with unforeseen challenges.

To that end, here are five things you should never say to your employees.

  1. “There are no exceptions [to this return-to-work plan].”

Whatever your policy, you must allow for exceptions.

This isn’t just our advice — in some cases, you might be legally mandated to offer exceptions in certain cases.

For example, you can’t require everyone to return to the office without regard to certain laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) [Australian Disability Discrimination Act 1992], under which you must provide accommodations to people with recognised disabilities.

For someone with a health condition that puts their health at a higher risk if they were to come into contact with COVID, working from home could be categorised as a reasonable accommodation.

Moreover, except in extreme circumstances, there should be some room for compromise, especially during a particularly difficult period.

  1. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but…”

Perhaps management has made a policy or decision that affects the staff and the return-to-work situation but is waiting to see how the Delta variant impacts the employment climate before taking steps to implement it.

Or maybe they’ve made the difficult decision to lay certain employees off after struggling throughout the pandemic.

Whether it’s one of these or another scenario, if you’re supposed to keep something under wraps, do it!

There’s a reason why lower-level employees aren’t supposed to know yet, and if you disclose that information, then you could be putting the company, the recipient of the information and yourself at risk.

  1. “So what if you’re scared?”

Dismissing your employees’ feelings shows a lack of empathy.

Right now, we’re facing ever-changing, often conflicting advice and perspectives on how to best curb the spread of COVID.

Your employees’ concerns are perfectly warranted during what has frankly been one of the scariest times, health- and safety-wise, in many of our lives.

Moreover, telling your employees it’s ridiculous to be feeling a certain way isn’t just rude — it’s also not helpful to anyone.

  1. “I don’t know any more than you do.”

This is one where the problem isn’t the content but the delivery.

True, you don’t know any more than your employee does about what’s going to happen with the pandemic, when it will end and whom it will affect.

But you do know the measures your company is putting in place deal with what happens.

Ultimately, you probably know more than your employees do in certain respects.

Instead of saying this dismissive statement, try something that shows understanding, such as “It’s a confusing time, and we’re still considering different angles” or simply acknowledging that coping with uncertainty is challenging.

  1. “The pandemic is over.”

Some restrictions have eased up, while there’s been a fair amount of back-and-forth on guidelines from the CDC.

Still, the pandemic is not over, even if you’re vaccinated.

The number of breakthrough cases due to the Delta variant is alarming, and too many people, including children 12 and under who are not eligible, remain unvaccinated.

When you say a broad-sweeping — and inaccurate — statement like this, you sound out of touch and untrustworthy.

You’re also, once again, disregarding the real, warranted fear surrounding the pandemic.

*Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor.

This article first appeared at fairygodboss.com.

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