“Happy fall, y'all” sounds a bit different this year. The markings of our typical change of seasons - the smell of new school supplies (yes, I nerded out on that as a kid), the sounds of cheering sports fans, and countless reasons to be gathered closely together after being away during the summer - are scant. These autumn connection points are replaced with more reasons to isolate: the addition of the cold and flu season to the pandemic, the risks associated with returning to campuses, and the continued growing divide in our country. We cling to connection through recorded crowd noises and remote fans during professional sporting events; through outdoor dining and plans of Zoom Halloween costume contests and treks across socially-distanced campuses. Our attempt to capture the ‘fall feeling’ is innately human; connection is not optional, so we use the best substitutes we can find.
And so it goes for our Infotech work family. We transitioned to remote life so well that prioritizing everyone’s safety by keeping our building closed has been a relatively easy decision. But month seven does not look or feel like month two. The virus is real; so are Zoom fatigue, internet woes, and interactive collaboration challenges. The blurred line between personal life and work life is exhausting and the stress felt by macro-socio-environmental conditions in our nation feels crushing. We have been forced to separate during a time when we need each other more than ever, when human contact is essential to healing.
So, while our teams continue to give amazing service to our clients and to each other, we understand many are doing so while struggling in this environment and feeling the effects of staring down another quarter doing the same thing. No amount of tools and methods to improve remote work, as amazing as some are, will completely fix this. Hence, my weakening resolve for keeping the building closed. We have tried to consistently protect our work family against the risk of COVID-19. We have consistently monitored and supported our family’s strong mental health through our culture, engaging platforms and outreach, and provided as many resources as possible. But how do we know when what is required to maintain both physical and mental health become antagonistic? When does the risk of one (mental stress) require us to loosen the protections built against the other (physical illness)? I do not have this answer, yet I have the responsibility to choose and provide a vision and a guide to where we are going. Enter our Return to Work Game Plan. It is but a small token of a future reprieve, but a firm promise that this time has an end date and that Infotech has no intention of transitioning to a permanent fully-remote workforce.
The Game Plan
We will not reopen our Infotech building fully until the pandemic is over, and we will not reopen partially until we see consistent downward trends for our area. Yet, we rolled out a Return to Work Game Plan in August, complete with rules, guidelines, and best practices. Why bother everyone with this if we’re not reopening right now? One, during a time when the ability to plan and have any sense of control over our future has been largely stripped from us, having a picture for what our return will look like, gives us a framework, an anchor to work towards. We live in a world where we are all thirsty for information, so we strive to provide our work family with as much transparent, sincere updates as possible. Our Game Plan may not be used right now, but I wanted to make sure our people understood we have a plan. Two, any reopening while the pandemic is still a risk will be an open invitation for employees to return, not a request and certainly not a mandate. Giving everyone time to absorb the rules of this return to a socially distanced office with closed break areas and a mask-wearing environment allows employees time to make a fully-informed decision on a return for themselves and their families.
Now, I should call it the “draft Game Plan; subject to change”, because like any good game plan there will be a plan and then there will need to be some game-time decisions that need to be made. We’re all doing the best we can with less than perfect information, but are confident in these Rules of Play.
- Trust rules at Infotech. Our social contract with each other tells us to monitor our health and not come into the building if we have any reason to believe we may expose another Infotech family member to illness. This is aided by a health self-assessment to be reviewed by any employee planning on entering our building.
- Science rules at Infotech. We will follow our local orders and science. This means maintaining no more than a 50% occupancy rate and wearing facial coverings in all common areas and where social distancing cannot occur. Infotech has provided all employees with Infotech masks and has disposable masks in the building for anyone in need of them.
- Personal choice rules at Infotech. When we open the building, we are free to choose to remain working remotely or to come to the building under our Game Plan, whether for one or five days a week. Every family member has varying degrees of risk and factors that weigh into this decision and either choice will be fully supported as long as the risk of this virus looms.
- Social distancing does not rule at Infotech normally, but will be required. Under the Return to Work Game Plan, we closed the break rooms (where high contact and therefore increased risk is likely) and some meeting rooms; continue to ask employees to continue using Zoom; established seating arrangements that meet social distancing requirements; and have new rules for the elevators and restrooms.
The Game Plan presents a very different environment for returning Infotech players. No coffee stations, no food trucks, and no “Fridays at Infotech” (picture on-site after-hours socializing with our favorite local craft beer supplier) presents a loss for us that is impossible to truly replace, at least for now.
Yet, I have had the ability to work in our very quiet, very socially distanced office recently. The psychological boost, simply by being there, by seeing and laughing with some other colleagues (albeit 6 feet away), for just a brief time, cannot be overstated. Experiencing connection beyond a two-dimensional screen through in-person engagement where the majority of communication via body language can be seen, and simply changing my environment for a few hours sustained me in a way that even this introvert cannot deny. So yes, we have excelled at remote work and we will exercise the discipline it takes to keep the building closed, as much as we’d love to open it now. But we also recognize that our mental health deserves support and attention as we move into months eight and beyond.
And so, the Infotech Game Plan sits as a promise -- we will not relent on prioritizing the health and wellbeing of our employees; but please hang in there, because we will be able to huddle as a team again and do so on our home field.