Pizza, ping pong, and parties—it all came to a halt the moment COVID-19 kicked in in early 2020. After years of building up a sense of community in the office, we shifted to remote work, an operational mode that divided us in the most literal sense. While we were technically prepared for the pandemic-induced shift, it still struck at a core component of the company’s identity. The ties we worked so hard to build, however, were also what helped us rebound hard and fast later on. 

Remoteness may have brought about greater digital connectivity in the workplace, but it impeded the social connectivity essential to the optimal functionality of some offices, like ours. The parties and rooftop beers were not just fun downtime experiences for employees to later reminisce about during coffee breaks. They were genuinely designed to interconnect our employees—the building blocks of a successful startup or growing company. Several studies, like Stanford’s experiment in China, demonstrated that employees are more productive when working from home. Our company, imbued with a sense of camaraderie and community, felt differently.

Locked Down and Divided

The early onset of the pandemic left our team members stuck at home, working remotely to the best of their abilities. As a company dedicated to digital transformation, we were well connected to manage this sudden change. Nevertheless, we never encouraged remote work ahead of the pandemic, when working from home was only allowed under exceptional circumstances. We had to adapt, implementing standard guidelines on how to work remotely. This shift put us under some strain, and the team was, to a degree, less productive during the pandemic, because, unlike other companies, it depended more on office connectivity.

Soon enough, though, we were able to start bringing people back, operating under the so-called Purple Standard rules issued by the Israeli Health Ministry. These rules, quite stringent, included various limitations on gatherings and meetings. With mandatory facemasks, a ban on social gatherings, such as coffee breaks, and limits on general attendance, we still fell short of our objective to keep a cohesive office working in sync.

Vaccine rollouts change the game

Just as we had started to gather our staff and find in-office solutions with distancing and safety procedures in place, Israel announced the rapid rollout of vaccines in December, marking the start of the return to normal. At the time, both on social and regular media, skeptics met the vaccines with suspicion. Surely, mce was no exception, with some employees having reservations about getting vaccinated. To return to our fullest efficiency and community atmosphere, it was imperative to have as many employees back in the office as possible. So the challenge was to convince as many skeptics as we could to get vaccinated. Initially, we split the employees into three distinct groups: 

Enthusiasts: Resolute in getting vaccinated as soon as they could; 

Fence-sitters: Hesitant to get vaccinated, but unwilling to be the last to get the vaccine; 

Nay-sayers: The hardest of vaccine skeptics.

Since the company prided itself on its community, we knew we had to approach the matter with utmost sensitivity, rather than take a paternalistic, tough-love approach. Punitive measures have little to no sway with the nay-sayer and the fence-sitter groups, and alienating them could only divide the office. Arguing with a doubter on vaccine effectiveness is as impactful as preaching dangers of cigarettes to a smoking room. Respecting employee opinions is important. Thus, we opted for using positive reinforcements and social, FOMO-esque methods to encourage everyone to get vaccinated and return to the office.

Listen, don’t push

To show gratitude to the first employees who vaccinated against the virus, we created a “Wall of Fame,” on which we posted their vaccination certificates. Those who wanted to come to the office once the restrictions were eased a bit and didn’t want to get vaccinated just yet were obligated to provide a negative COVID-19 test result within 48 hours before coming in. Their results were also posted on the board to make sure all employees felt safe when in the office. As we found out later, this move set us on the right path.

As more vaccination certificates showed up on the Wall of Fame board, we noticed the skeptics began to change their minds. They wanted to be part of the group, part of mce’s community. Over several weeks, at an exponential rate, more fence-sitters and eventually naysayers received their vaccines. Once most of the office got the jab, management started organizing events to restore the familiar old atmosphere—ping pong games, shawarma days, BBQs, beer toasts, and more. In the end, seeing their colleagues participating in fun community events prompted the remaining unvaccinated to join the fray and get the jab.

Patience, positive reinforcement, and community building were critical in our quick recovery and turnaround. Company management might be inclined to alienate, punish, or be dismissive of employees who choose to stray from the herd, in this case to not get the vaccine. Rather than push our beliefs on employees who were skeptical to begin with, we wanted to listen to them, understand them, and let them know that they will be respected regardless of their decision.

As cliche as it sounds, a company is not just about products, it’s also about people and building and maintaining a strong community. That is the remedy for an office recovering from a pandemic.