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As many re-enter physical workplaces, the rush to return to pre-pandemic “normal” has been intense. This push risks leading to exclusion and disconnection in workplaces.
Here I offer trends & tips employers should keep in mind to ensure an inclusive return to work:
Be mindful of the rush to “return to normal.” I heard a story recently about a school choir in my province that was so anxious to have children return to a pre-pandemic normal while we still had mask mandates in place. Children were forced to sing for an hour with masks. This resulted in some of the children not getting enough oxygen and… fainting. This is the result of us denying what we have experienced and rushing to return to a “before” without recognizing our new reality. We push ourselves to the point that we hurt ourselves and each other to feign “normality.” Employers, let this be a metaphor for what can happen when organizations push employees to fit into one elusive “normal.” I also invite you to reflect on these questions: What is so great about is this elusive “normal”? What is so great about going back to exactly how things used to be?
Sure, it is comforting! I am with you on this. Sure, it can and is scary to acknowledge we need to do things differently. Sure, we need a new set of tools to support us in this as we return to new workplaces. At the same time, we can and need to reimagine a world where we let go of structures and beliefs that did not serve us before the pandemic started. Beliefs that fuel oppression, racism, sexism and discrimination against those with disabilities; beliefs that will inhibit full potential of your team and a sense of belonging. If organizations want to take diversity, inclusion and belonging seriously, they need to get comfortable with letting go of how things were pre-pandemic.
Make space for difference. I recently had an experience with a natural health care practitioner, who I asked to wear a mask during our session. My request was met with surprise and irritation; this person did not have masks prepared for clients who request them and reminded me that “we no longer have to wear them” and “at some point, we have to learn to live with this.”
While I agree with the latter statement, “living with this virus” will look different for different people. Some folks are immunocompromised or have vulnerable family members. Some are elderly. Some have experienced trauma and need time to adjust to what feels safe. Employers, please remember this when establishing expectations for returning to work in offices, and around the choices around wearing, or not wearing masks. In some environments, such as health care, the needs of vulnerable people must be a priority.
Gender and other diversity dimensions. Let’s unpack this example of me requesting that a health care practitioner wear a mask, and his reaction. This was an older cis man, white, able bodied “authority figure.” My experiences with men like this made this request challenging. Society has painted women who make requests that put their own safety above the comfort of others as “needy” “irrational” “hysterical” “over emotional” etc. These experiences can be compounded when you consider other identities such as being a woman of colour, or a woman with a disability. Employers, remember to consider employees in all their diversity when responding to needs & requests for accommodation, such as working from home.
Increased harassment in workplaces. I have heard stories of increased cases of harassment in workplaces, for example, blaming those who may still need to wear masks, or those requesting to work from home for increased workloads. Those that are women, particularly women of colour, who may have disabilities or be neurodivergent can be vulnerable to this harassment. Employers, these problems will be exacerbated by your silence. It is crucial to create safe spaces to work through these issues, create clear guidelines for behaviour for return to work and work accommodations where blaming and shaming will not be tolerated. To do this, everyone in workplaces needs to build new skills on empathic, inclusive and respectful communication.
In my work, I facilitate discussions on what ‘respect’ and ‘disrespect’ look and feel like. From there, we articulate concrete behaviours, and engage in practical empathy-based activities, including role play. I also support organizations to build respectful workplace policies. Learn more here.
As we return to a new world of work, I invite organizations to embrace this opportunity to courageously create a more caring and inclusive “normal.” One that make space for diversity of experience, needs and identities.
I leave you with inspiration from Sonya Renee Taylor:
We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, My friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.