Emerging from a COVID Cocoon Without a Playbook

One of my daughters graduated from college this past weekend, and I wanted to celebrate the happy occasion in a big way. (Well, maybe not so big that people would feel uncomfortable being around so many others!) For many of us, this would be the first social gathering we’d be attending since the “before days,” and I wanted to make sure I was scrupulous about playing by the rules.

Trouble is, both the CDC and our Massachusetts state government were changing the guidelines daily, so I had to come up with my own rules. Since the science tells us that transmission rates outside are close to 0%, we set up several outdoor areas for guests to gather and put up signs directing people to the back. As luck would have it, about an hour into the party, the sunny skies suddenly gave way to driving rain for 20 or so minutes. Guests found themselves scrambling to find outdoor places to stay reasonably dry, as coming indoors was not a viable option, apart from guests who needed to use the “facilities.” I was worried that people would think I was being an ungenerous host, but keeping in mind my principle of safety first, I knew I had made the right choice.

Even though I knew that some people are skittish about being around those who are not vaccinated, I was reluctant to quiz every guest about their status. I knew that most were, but a few surprise guests threw me off. When I couldn’t answer honestly when some people asked in hushed tones whether everyone was vaccinated, those guests kept their distance as they cautiously removed their masks. (I did wonder: If I had known that some were not vaccinated, would I have shared that information with others privately? This is the very same question that many employers of hybrid teams are asking themselves right now.)

When it came to physical greetings, things got very awkward, very quickly. A few of our guests automatically jutted out their right hands to shake, and suddenly retracted them when their fellow guests recoiled in shocked surprise. Others were unhesitating and unstinting in their hugs (that would be me!), while others demurred in favor of a fist bump. (“Sorry,” one friend explained. “This is the first time I have been around people outside of my pod, and I just can’t go from hermit to hugger overnight.”)

We’re all trying to find our places in this “new normal” of a post-pandemic world, both at home and at work. I’ve had a couple of clients ask me recently if I’d be willing to run sessions in person, and I have perhaps too quickly said yes, and then later asked myself about under what conditions I’d feel comfortable. For example, do I feel ready to fly? Would I feel okay being in a crowded room in an area with low vaccination rates? And, would I be risking the business if I suggested any conditions to my client?

On a much grander scale, organizations moving to a virtual or hybrid model are pondering questions that will have a profound effect on their businesses, employees, clients and partners. What latitude can they afford to give employees when it comes to choosing where virtual team members work? Can they make vaccinations mandatory for office workers? Which of their business processes do they need to revamp, tweak, or discard altogether in light of a hybrid work model? How do they make sure everyone has equal opportunities for professional development and career growth? The list goes on.

To answer such questions, organizations and teams need to agree on shared values, principles and norms to help assess tough trade-offs, make decisions, and agree how they’ll work together as they transition to their “new normal,” however ephemeral that may be. Make no mistake: This work is hard, and it often requires discussions that can be contentious and difficult. These are unprecedented times, and no one has a clear roadmap to go by. But, as the saying goes, you pay now by doing the hard work up front, or you pay later, resulting in delays, frustration, avoidable costs and missed opportunities.

All in all, our party went surprisingly smoothly, considering that we had no clear guidelines or roadmap. Having a handful of principles to go by (e.g., safety first, protection of privacy, respecting peoples’ choices) made the planning a lot less stressful, and it made the party much more enjoyable for all.


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