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Returning to Work Amid a Global Pandemic

Tiffany Mok
Tiffany Mok

August 7, 2020

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Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

It is August and Singapore is slowly reopening its economy. Although we are now a little more than a month into “Phase Two” of the reopening, many of us are still struggling just to stay attuned to the ever-changing ‘new normal’ and keep abreast of new information that seems to just keep pouring in. 

As more companies adopt an office-remote hybrid model for their workforce, management teams are challenged to manage the transition smoothly. This is new territory, and we hope to help you through this transition successfully by sharing a few useful tips and insights in the three key areas of (a) health, (b) culture, and (c) productivity. 

A) A Successful Transition: Health 

2020 has brought on a global pandemic - and with it, a focus on health that the collective society has hardly experienced. Although this shaky economic downturn has most of us shifting our focus and working to increase our value, as Winston Churchill once said, “Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have”. 

We’re not saying to neglect self-improvement and upskilling - these are essential if you want to thrive in this economy. However, without good health, there is no thriving. 

Photo by Caju Gomes on Unsplash

It was previously thought that it was not possible for COVID-19 to be transmitted through the air. However, the WHO guidelines (as of 9 July 2020) now state that airborne transmission of the coronavirus may be possible indoors, especially if people spend long periods of time in crowded and poorly ventilated rooms.

While safety experts and building managers will have to analyse and implement ways to optimize ventilation in air-conditioned buildings, companies might want to take steps to help employees feel peace-of-mind when they’re physically in the office. It doesn’t need to be through devices with fancy technology all around. There are many other actions that business leaders can take.

The key is to layer your protection measures

First and foremost, we should focus on following public health recommendations and safe distancing principles.

As of Phase Two, this includes:

  • Ensuring a safe distance of at least one metre between people at all times
  • If safe distancing is not feasible, the one metre requirement can be enforced between groups, if group sizes do not exceed five people with no mixing between groups
  • Wearing a mask as much as possible 
  • Practicing good personal hygiene by washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your face

Other simple steps that you can do to mitigate viral transmission:

  • Limiting the number of people allowed in a room (there will be productivity and space implications which we will cover later on!)
  • Rearranging furniture to avoid having several people on the same airflow “corridor”
  • Replacing hand dryers with paper towels to reduce air turbulence
  • Opening windows wherever possible, especially in rooms with basic HVAC systems that cannot filter or pull in air from outside the building
  • Having seating arrangements where employees are ‘back-to-back’ rather than ‘face-to-face’

If you want to go to the next level and have the resources to add an extra layer of protection to reduce risks, you could also look into investing in personal HEPA air purifiers that are on the market. There are even air purifiers that come with humidifiers keeping the air in a room between 40%-60% humidity, as well as UV light technology that is designed to inactivate viruses and bacteria in the air. 

According to Bromage, a CNN contributor, there is a sweet spot and zone for the coronavirus - between 40 and 60% humidity, where it doesn’t survive for very long. Where the humidity in the air is below 40%, the infected droplets tend to hang in the air for a longer period of time, increasing the opportunity to infect people. Where the humidity is above 60%, the infected droplets become heavier and they drop onto surfaces at a much faster rate. Additionally, “being wet actually keeps the virus alive and infectious for longer”.

Keep in mind that the power and size of the air purifiers you choose should directly correlate with the size of your room. You can’t send an ant to do an elephant’s job, no matter how tempting it might be to.

Additionally, it would be wise to take note of the General Advisory for employers if a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 should be detected at the workplace (as of 28 Feb 2020). 

"No one strategy alone is going to work. But if we layer enough of these on top of each other, we can significantly reduce risks." - Joseph Gardner Allen, Harvard environmental health researcher

B) A Successful Transition: Culture

I’m sure you have heard of the new office-remote hybrid model of working by now - you might even be working in one. The hybrid model of working promises many benefits, but it might be (and probably is) harder than it looks to reap them successfully. 

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

A company’s ways of working help to create its culture - an ideal one might consist of a united and cohesive team that is built on trust and respect for one another. To lose sight of these ways is to risk an erosion of culture. 

Even as most of us have had to grapple with the challenge of making remote working a success these past months, we now face a new challenge of making the hybrid working model a success by keeping the company’s culture strong. (Read: 6 Tips to Forge Stronger Team Synergy)

This then begets the golden question - how might we maintain a strong company culture?

It's Time to Reimagine 

During this time, companies will need to relook at what contributes to their successful workplace cultures and reimagine how to reintroduce them - be it your Fitness Fridays, festive parties or even those impromptu coffee runs with your colleagues to get over that mid-afternoon slump. We are living in different times with different mediums given to us, and we need to think about how we can keep the spirit of those activities alive.

On the other hand, if you didn’t deem your pre-pandemic workplace culture to be a successful one, then now might be a good time to go back to the drawing board to draw up some new initiatives. 

Leadership is Critical

Leadership is of paramount importance during this period. Amid the rocky terrain and unusual obstacles that teams face, a strong leadership is essential for successfully navigating the path and leading their team to success. You will need to be intentional with the choices you make to lead your team. 

With the ‘Team A / Team B’ model, leaders have to be vigilant to avoid the pitfall of favouring one team over the other. The proportion of your workforce that works remotely and the percentage of their remote working hours has to be just right, or risk one team feeling more disconnected and thus more unmotivated than the other. 

Leaders will also need to lead by example. How you choose to work will be what your team thinks is the ideal work situation. If you choose to go back to the office too often, you will be indicating that the physical workspace is where the most opportunities for growth and productivity lie. This can result in staff feeling they have no real choice and should be in the office as often as possible if they want to advance their career.

However, if they choose to work remotely too often, it might send a signal to the team that physical social interactions are not important. This might potentially cause employees to belittle the impact of social interactions in the workplace, which can result in a breakdown of motivation, trust, and team cohesion.

Remember that communicating your decisions is as important as the arrangement itself. For example, if you’re allowing people back into the office, explain why this is so to prevent employees from feeling like the leadership doesn’t trust them. 

A strong company culture requires active enforcement of it, rather than a passive one. Contrary to what many people think and tend to overlook, a strong culture only arises from strong leadership that sees the value in it and works the ground continually to sow the seeds. It might be backbreaking work, but it reaps a good and healthy harvest. 

C) A Successful Transition: Productivity

The “circuit breaker” period in Singapore had required most of our workforce to adapt to working remotely. For some companies, it was venturing into brand new territory, and with it, an uncomfortable shift to stop themselves from the habit of monitoring inputs and tracking their team’s activity as a barometer of productivity.

“If you start from a stance that you don’t trust people, then I think you’ve already lost the battle,” - Amir Salihefendic, Founder and CEO of Doist

Instead of monitoring inputs, try measuring productivity by outcomes instead and consider using a goal and work management system like OKRs. Teams these days tend to be able to thrive with more empowering and less controlling management styles. 

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

The nature of digital platforms is that it significantly reduces socioemotional cues that we would receive from face-to-face interactions with people. Hence, a more inspirational management style might be necessary (especially during this period) and work better in your team, instead of the traditional hierarchical leadership. People need that human connection. (You can read more about the human connection as the key to any effective online interaction here).

You might also want to consider what the long-term arrangement will be like after our situation improves to move into ‘Phase Three’ and beyond. Will you keep it 50-50 between the remote and office working team? If you want more people to be back in the office, there are implications for your office layout and floor area (you may need a bigger office!). 

As Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “Change is the only constant in life”. How we choose to react to these changes will shape us. The world is collectively facing major changes and some of us may feel it more than others, but let’s choose to tackle each challenge step by step. Remember, we are all in this together. 

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