For those born in the 70’s or before, the phrase ‘olly olly oxen free’, or some version of that, may sound familiar. You remember, it’s what you yell to bring everyone out of their hiding places to return to home base when playing hide and seek or kick the can.

In a similar way, the province is gearing up to call us back to work and released a plan last week that provides a framework for reopening Ontario. The plan outlines the principles the government will follow to reopen businesses in 3 gradual stages and explains the criteria that will be used to indicate when it is safe to begin loosening restrictions.

As we wait for the green light from our governing bodies, businesses are finding themselves knee deep in working to develop effective re-boarding strategies for a situation we have never encountered before. Information seems to be coming from everywhere and it’s difficult to know where to start.

The call of ‘olly olly oxen free’ is not only beckoning those still hiding to show themselves, it offers a guarantee of freedom to come home without being tagged. In the case of returning to the workplace, we are charged with creating that same sense of safety and security for our employees. So how do we go about doing that?

Despite the restrictions that are keeping us apart, we need to begin to foster the trust between employers and employees through consistent communication starting immediately. Although many business owners often prefer to have their message polished before releasing it into the world, perhaps we need to take a page from our current political leaders and provide regular releases, updates and check-ins, regardless of whether our information is perfect or if we have all the wrinkles ironed out.

Psychologists have long known that our brains react poorly to uncertainty. Prospection is the act of looking forward in time or thinking about the future. Interestingly, the human being is the only animal that is wired for this ability and having control is one of our fundamental needs and natural functions of our brains. In our brains, our frontal lobe allows us to imagine a future. We contemplate the future, so we can make predictions about it and we make predictions so we can control it. With the uncertainly of not knowing, we feel a distinct loss of control and with that loss of control we experience stress and anxiety.

When it comes to change management in the workplace, the focus is on helping individuals transition from the way they are working today to a new future state. While leaders are working to formulate a plan to bring staff back to the office, it is important to remove that stress and anxiety by taking the time to sift out high level pieces of information to share with your people to allow them a sense of control while engaging  and including them on this journey.

At this point in the process, the experts are articulating what each company’s  new normal will look like and although every firm will require some customized solutions, we can start building awareness based on the things we do know. For example, we can safely assume that social distancing regulations applied in an office setting will translate to wider distances between workers, new rules for using shared spaces like meeting rooms, cafeterias and washrooms and lower overall densities across floors and buildings. In response, your company is likely discussing what level of mobility you want to maintain and considering flexible schedules. Messages to staff can be structured around these topics, opening the door to future conversations and offering a glimpse into what tomorrow may bring.

Past experience in the realm of change management have proven that managing the ‘people’ side of change reduces resistance and increases the probability of project success. We are collectively living in an environment of unknowns and employees are well aware that their leaders do not have all the answers yet, but it is comforting for them to regularly be included in that conversation and to know that we are working on a plan behind the scenes.

It won’t be long before the streetlights come on and we get to crawl out of our hiding spaces, stretch our legs and head back home.

Andrea Fraser, Workplace Strategist, Bennett Design Associates Inc.     May 5, 2020

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