Every day the uncertainty of “when” looms over us. When can we go outside? When can we return to work? When can we stop social distancing? When … will this all be over?

The answer is: we don’t know.

But what we do know, is that one day it will be over. And we will all have to continue living. No doubt we will be living differently, but living, nonetheless.

For many, that new life will include leaving your remote workspaces and returning to a physical workplace, filled with other people. But it’s not just as easy as going back to work on a Monday after enjoying the weekend.

People are experiencing massive change, extreme stress, perhaps trauma from losing a loved one, their own health challenges, etc. That won’t all miraculously go away once all the “stay at home orders are lifted.”

Instead, employers and employees alike will be bringing all of this with them back to work. So, what’s a business to do? Businesses must begin to prepare now so they can be ready then. You cannot wait until we get the go ahead to resume our daily activities to figure out how you will handle the aftermath.

So, how should businesses prepare for the aftermath? Several experts in the areas of employment law, human resources, mental health and wellbeing, and leadership share their practical advice.

Libby Gill, Executive Coach, Author, International Speaker: Change is hard. And that includes positive change. After the virus passes and life returns to yet another new normal, people will need leaders who can articulate a powerful vision of the future that is both passionate and practical. Clarify what the months ahead will look like, blast through barriers and open doors for your team, and build a culture based on stability, trust, compassion, and hope. That’s how we’ll pick up the pieces and move forward.

Brian Rollo, Management Consultant, Leadership Coach: Re-entry into physical workspaces will be challenging. People will first be worried about their physical safety, so companies should have clear policies about social distancing practices. Are they still required, and if so, for how long? If/when social distancing is no longer required, how should you treat colleagues who still feel safer keeping their distance from others? Organizations should be ready to answer these questions in a clear and transparent way. People will also be looking to recapture a sense of connection that they may have missed while working remotely. Leaders should be ready to welcome team members back with a message of unity and togetherness, and actions that back those words up. Meaningful team and individual recognition for navigating the crisis will go a long way.

Angela J. Reddock-Wright, Employment Law Attorney, Mediator, Arbitrator: Employers who had to close their doors and/or lay employees off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will have to begin thinking about how they will re-staff when they resume business.  Will they bring back the same employees? Will they hire new employees?  Will they do a combination of both?  Whatever their plan, they must be sure to consider equitable practices that are compliant with the law. Employers must ensure that despite the pandemic, they treat everyone fairly and equitably and that their decisions are not based on discriminatory factors such as race, gender, disability, religion or other factors. The pandemic, although very serious, does not excuse employers from following complying with the law.

Kate Bischoff, tHRive Law & Consulting, LLC, Attorney, HR Consultant: Transitioning back into the workplace is going to take some real grace from managers. Some will believe that everything is “back to normal” and want to see people 8-5 and resume face-to-face management. Some employees will not like this and start seeking work elsewhere. Other managers are going to be elated that their teams did so well while remote and work to keep their teams on this plan. To be successful, we need to reevaluate what effective management looks like. Do we need to see people? Do we need to be in the office? Can we be effective in a hybrid model? For those in industries where they’ve shutdown, expect some celebration and socializing before expecting people to get right back to work. 

April Lewis, Speaker, Mental Health Fitness Coach:  When you return to work do not try to pick up the same way you left off. Allow yourself, and your team, time and space to ease back into the community of colleagues, as some people may have been deprived of much-needed social interaction outside of their families. Avoid creating mental health stress by forcing a situation. Once you get in the office, get settled and unpacked then reorient yourself back to the workplace. Allow the new post-COVID-19 environment to unfold as a team.

Farah Harris, MA, LCPC, Licensed Therapist, Workplace Wellness Advocate: COVID-19 created a forced work-life integration. The sudden shift to working remotely hasn’t been an easy adjustment for many, but it has highlighted several things that both employers and employees should consider once transitioning back to life as it were. Offer flextime/remote work – employees should feel encouraged to articulate what adjustments would help their productivity and mental health going forward while employers should evaluate if they have proper systems in place to make remote work easy and accessible for all employees.  Conduct a Re-entry Interview – check-in with employees to obtain honest feedback about their work from home experience and their emotions around returning to the workplace. Reestablish Team Morale – If you are a leader, be transparent about how Covid-19 impacted you. Together share your experiences to help build understanding and belonging.

Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, LCSW-C, CSP, Author, Instructor Johns Hopkins University: It’s crucial to be patient with employees who need time for “re-entry.” Be prepared for a lot of questions about continued workplace “safety” with cleanliness.  Once this crisis subsides there will still be employees who won’t believe that the threat has been greatly minimized. Remember that nearly 20% of our population struggles with an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive related disorder.  These conditions include panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, generalized anxiety disorder and more. Encourage Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and other organization-sponsored mental health resources during this transition time.  And importantly, do everything you can to de-stigmatize using them. When you return, encourage people to talk about their experience at home, their challenges and fears.  But provide leadership that gently encourages compassionate discussion but not dwelling.

Ryan Gallik, Co-Founder of The Mental Hygiene Project ®️: In times of crisis, it’s critical that employers not only focus on their bottom line; but more importantly on their most valuable asset, the employee. We share the pressures and stressors that crisis brings. If we don’t manage our minds, our minds may begin to manage us. Regardless if still employed, or furloughed, mental hygiene is of the upmost importance. Being resilient – the ability to withstand, recover and grow in the face of adversity will need to be a vital focus for employers. This will require providing strategies and resources for employees to learn about composure, adaptability and self-care. Employers should also develop a mental hygiene task force or mental hygiene committee.

These experts’ sage advice can be boiled down to this: transition takes time, patience, and strategy.

I believe it will also take training. As we have seen from some of our politicians, leaders, friends, and colleagues, in times of stress and crisis, bias and discrimination rears its ugly head. Emotions like fear of the unknown can cause people to act contrary to their conscious thoughts and feelings. Therefore, employees and employers will need to be educated about unconscious bias and how that will impact their decisions in the COVID-19 aftermath if left unchecked.

To be prepared is half the victory.

Miguel de Cervantes