Will your workplace ever feel normal again?

New rules, precautions might do little to ease fears of returning employees

Friday, July 17, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 29
By Catherine Mayhew

Let’s go over our back-to-work checklist: Pull office clothes out of the closet and say a prayer they still fit, pack a lunch with your own utensils and plan to eat at your desk (That communal kitchen may be off limits right now.) and buckle a heaping helping of anxiety into the passenger seat of your car and head on in.

As Tennessee continues to slowly open, some offices are unshuttering their doors. And the question that’s on everyone’s mind is “will I be safe?”

“The anxiety of going back to work has multiple points of anxiety for folks,” says Elizabeth Power, founder of the EPower Change Institute and The Trauma Informed Academy. “It’s a big change after staying at home, seeing no one but immediate family, avoiding places where people gather.

“We worry about who might cough on us and what their cough means, about contaminated surfaces and about being forced to increase risk beyond our comfort,’’ she says. “We wonder about our immune systems, and we, hopefully, wonder about who might be immunocompromised at our workplace. We worry about something we don’t have answers for and can’t control.

“Classic, classic contributors to anxiety. Changes we have to navigate somehow if we are to create a future of ease in more places.”

Many companies have been working overtime while their staffs are home trying to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of providing the safest way to go back to the office.

Some are installing touchless doors and bathrooms, removing touchpoints such as microwaves from breakrooms, installing large video conferencing screens and setting up temperature-taking stations. Many companies with large staffs are staggering in-office schedules.

“We started getting those calls during the midst of the pandemic because people were thinking ‘how are we going to conduct business?’ says Jenny Smith, a workplace solutions specialist with Nashville Office Interiors, which also has branches in Knoxville and Chattanooga. “The trend over the last five to eight years has been the open-office environment. That means there’s very little separation. You’re all out in the open.

“Now what we’re finding is … nobody wants that anymore,’’ she adds. “So the industry has rallied with multiple solutions which is much like what you see in grocery stores - Plexiglass to protect people so you can modify the existing workspace to provide some barrier between people.

“Not only has this affected the interiors, but the interior designers and architects are now having to plan buildings with social distancing in mind. Floor plans have circles everywhere denoting how much space there has to be between people.”

After weeks of meticulous planning, MP&F Strategic Communications reopened its offices on Commerce Street June 8.

“Our priorities are we want our staff to be safe and feel safe and make it as safe as possible for them to return,” says Alice Chapman, managing partner. “We’ve taken a phased approach. We don’t want everyone to come back at the same time.”

Lori Ridgeway, back on the job at Cumberland Transit.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

MP&F is one of those companies that – pre-virus – designed open work space to foster communication and collaboration at the firm. Now its reimaging that as well, as marking off sit and no-sit seating in conference rooms, setting up sanitary stations and designing a detailed temperature-check procedure for its 70 employees.

Four workdays a week, 15 staffers are coming to work in staggered groups. Wednesdays are set aside as deep cleaning days.

“When you come to the office, we are asking you to text a couple of people (in the office) and see if it’s OK for you to come up (the elevator), and we have a special room to take the temperature,” Chapman says. The firm also is supplying every staff member with a goody bag of hand sanitizer, masks and thermometer strips so employees can take their temperatures at home before coming to work.

And should anxiety be a barrier to returning to the office, MP&F is giving every employee the option to continue working from home.

Chapman says it’s great to partially leave the virtual office behind.

“I’ve had several in-person socially distanced meetings every day since being back in our office space,” she says. “Having non-Zoom conversations with my colleagues definitely lifts my spirits. The ability to collaborate in person, including walking down the hall to run an idea by someone, is the No. 1 benefit to being together.

“I will also say that we recognize that social distancing and wearing of masks is the new normal,” she continues. “These regulations/best practices will likely continue – both within MP&F’s walls and beyond – until a vaccine is developed. We continue to be flexible and are keeping a close eye on the news coming out of Mayor John Cooper’s office.”

Power says the key to making the return to the office a positive experience is simply embracing change.

“The key to preventing this change from becoming a traumatic experience, so overwhelming we can’t cope, is in our willingness to explore, do things differently, and in refusing to allow the changes to be personal,” she says. “Our willingness to apply a discipline born of confidence instead of fear.”

Heather Bottoms quit her job in March at the Five Points post office in downtown Franklin because she was so nervous. “I have asthma and I was very worried,” she says. But that was at the early stages of the pandemic in Tennessee. Now, with precautions in place, she’s back at work.

“We have no options to reconfigure that space,” she adds of the historic building the post office is in. “It’s tiny. Nothing is wider than 3 or 4 feet, so we have to work close to each other. I felt a lot better going back.”

Lori Ridgeway helps customers Jessica Kirby and husband Justin Kirby of Nashville as they try on shoes at Cumberland Transit.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

There are now plexiglass shields in place, as well as hand sanitizer at every workstation. “It’s not perfect, and people are still next to each other, but they’re more aware of what constitutes safety,” Bottoms says.

Still, after only leaving her home to go grocery shopping during her six-week quarantine, she felt “very exposed” to be back at work. “It was very surreal to be out in the world again.”

Lori Ridgeway, a buyer for Cumberland Transit, was thrilled to go back to the sporting goods company on West End Avenue.

“We were lucky,” she says. “We’re still here. We’re a small business. But our owner was on the button. We got the loan for payroll and part rent. Our company is fine.”

And the fact that Cumberland Transit sells sporting equipment, including bicycles, means business is booming since outdoor activity has been deemed far safer than being indoors in a public place.

Nevertheless, Ridgeway had some anxiety about returning.

“I did think about it,” she says. “The week before I knew I was coming back I thought long and hard about it. When we got in and saw people we’ve known as employees we relaxed a little bit. I was wiping down everything. Even now, I don’t step up close to customers.”

Precautions at the store include regular temperature checks, masks for employees, sanitation and restricting entry to the store to only one entrance.

Before Nashville’s mandate that all residents wear masks outside the home, she was wary of customers without masks.

“You’re getting somebody new every 10 minutes and you don’t know where they’ve been,” she explains. “If I see someone without a mask I think I don’t know if you’re being careful at home.”

Power acknowledges that everyone is in what is called a liminal space right now.

Author and theologian Richard Rohr describes liminal space: “It is when you have left, or are about to leave, the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run to anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”

“This kind of new discipline means keeping ourselves more separate until we learn what this “invisible enemy” does,” Power says. “We need to learn how exposure changes as we change activities, and adjust accordingly to reduce the risk of a more significant second wave.

“Learning to manage the anxiety of the ‘what if’ and the social anxiety means saying to ourselves, ‘I am worth the extra precautions and care I take. And I am worth the confidence action and knowledge brings.’”