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Managers, buckle up. Your job will be harder than ever as we return to the office

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If you’re a manager, buckle up. Your next several months at work are likely to be … interesting.

Sure, there’s going to be the dominant challenge of successfully leading a newly hybrid workforce. More from Success

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But further complicating it will be the more immediate and delicate task of handling the pandemic-related concerns that your team members will have as employers plan their return to the office.

    “The job of a front-line manager is arguably going to be harder than it’s ever been before,” said Brian Kropp, chief of HR research for Gartner, a business advisory firm.

      That’s partly because managers will be charged with enforcing company policies on masking and vaccinations that are likely to be amended as employers parse changing guidance from health and government authorities.Read More

      Why some companies want everyone back in the office And they’ll be dealing with team members who are emotionally worn out and have various anxieties or practical concerns about working in-person again.”There is pandemic fatigue. People are all experiencing things differently and are reacting so differently to the stress,” said Jocelyn Kung, CEO of The Kung Group, a leadership coaching and organizational consulting firm.Different rules may apply to different groups of people if an employer, say, follows US Centers for Disease Control guidance on masking — which is that only people who remain unvaccinated need to wear masks and socially distance. And if the employer is also not mandating vaccinations — as many are not yet — managers will have to verify who exactly is vaccinated before they’re able to enforce the masking policy. “If a company doesn’t mandate vaccination, you’ll likely have less than 100% of your employees vaccinated,” said Devjani Mishra, a shareholder at the law firm Littler Mendelson.

      Dilemmas, rational or not

      Say someone claims they are vaccinated and doesn’t wear a mask. But a worried colleague who works nearby comes to you and alleges that person isn’t telling the truth. “So what do you do? Do you call HR? HR may say ‘Trust them when they say they’ve been vaccinated because we’re not asking for proof,'” Kropp said.That obviously won’t assuage the worried staff member — or the manager, for that matter. But it may have to stand because that’s the policy in effect.

      Reopening plans for offices are complicated by new CDC mask guidelines Consider another scenario: An employee who is fully vaccinated doesn’t want to work in the office because they have an unvaccinated child or a member of their household is immunocompromised and they worry they could contract the virus at work and pass it on. Or maybe the problem is more straightforward: A parent still doesn’t have adequate childcare to come into the office yet.The question then for the manager is, ‘Do I let that person work remotely full-time even if the company policy now requires everyone to work in the office at least a few days a week?’ If the answer is yes, then how do other team members, who might prefer to remain remote, respond to the break in policy?

      Best practices…for now

      There are some ways managers might maximize the chances for a successful transition back to work despite the challenges ahead. Set expectations. Let staff know company policies will be a work in progress as the situation evolves.Let them know, too, that the company’s top consideration will always be safety first, Kropp said. And sometimes that may mean requiring more stringent restrictions than some official guidelines suggest.Be sensitive. You may be tempted to tell someone whose concerns seem overblown to you that life is never risk-free, but don’t. “Employees should be allowed to do what makes them feel safe. They may be fully vaccinated but want to continue wearing masks or continue telecommuting for a period of time. Many employers are making the decision to allow that,” Mishra said.Help staff stay informed. Not everyone is equally informed about vaccinations or has equal access, Mishra noted. So help keep your team members informed about where vaccines are available, that they’re free and, if applicable, that the company lets employees take paid time off to get them.Be clear about the company’s right to ask about vaccine status: Remind your team that employers may ask employees for their vaccination status just as they might any other relevant workplace information, that employees are required to give a truthful answer and that it is not a violation of health privacy laws, Mishra said.

        Treat everyone individually. “People first” has never been more important, Kung said. “Check in with each person on your team as they get ready to come back. And do it one on one.”Given how many factors beyond your control remain in flux, the decisions you make in the months ahead should be guided by each team member’s circumstance and concerns, she added. “It’s less about the rational and more about empathy and allowing flexibility to rule the day.”


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