The Summer of Transition

by Warren Call

July means Cherry Festival and a welcome return to normal zaniness after the not-normal zaniness of the pandemic.

July could also mark another important milestone: the end of standing meetings for the Grand Traverse County Joint Operations Center (JOC).

This collaborative group of public and private sector organizations, with the dedicated leadership of Grand Traverse County Administrator Nathan Alger, has been successfully working together since March of 2020 to address the many challenges of COVID-19.

The welcome end to the standing JOC meetings is yet another example of the gradual slow fade of the pandemic as case numbers continue to fall and vaccination rates climb. As we celebrate the departure of the mask mandate, lifting of capacity limits and an end to the remaining pandemic protocols, businesses are eager to welcome employees back to the workplace.

But the return to the new normal presents unique challenges regarding our local labor force.

A key concern for many leaders is how best to reengage employees in such a way that teams are back to full capacity, comfortable and in a position to perform. Extended unemployment benefits, ongoing employee health concerns and childcare availability all play a role, but a significant part of the challenge is simply getting people back into the routine, or more precisely, the new routine.

Uncertainty and risk created near-constant strain on everyone, resulting in significant changes to what mental health experts refer to as baseline stress. This means standard activities that did not cause anxiety in the past may do so now, just as previously stressful situations may feel more manageable post-pandemic. Navigating these changes is different for each individual and it falls to leaders to recognize and address the challenges for our employees, our families and ourselves.

After a year of isolation, the return to work is exciting for many workers, but it can be overwhelming and even frightening for some. These diverse reactions are normal and mental health experts recommend employers consider the lifting of restrictions in the context of a gradual period of transition. Unlike the initial COVID lockdown that brought a very abrupt change to the workplace, the return-to-normal work is best viewed as an ongoing process rather than a flipping of the switch.

Many people have some degree of lingering anxiety and we are all probably a bit rusty when it comes to in-person interaction. A first step is simply to acknowledge that the process will take time and could be awkward. Companies can experiment with novel ways to transition their workforce and we can all support each other with a degree of grace and understanding.

Employee Assistance Programs offered through benefits providers can help workers process what has happened, what has changed and how to move forward. Reevaluating standards for dress codes, work schedules and communication channels present an opportunity to offer increased workplace flexibility.

Firms offering a hybrid in-office and at-home work schedules are evaluating new modes of team building as employees reacclimate to working together in the new format. Companies can also focus their professional development programs on the key characteristics of professionalism and productivity that truly drive results.

Efforts to create a welcoming return to work are a key aspect of employee morale. Now is the perfect time to experiment with providing flexibility, support and gradual changes to make the transition to the office as smooth as possible for employees and their families. Employers that effectively reengage their teams during this summer of transition will be best positioned to keep the great people they have and to attract much-needed additional talent for future growth.

Warren Call is the president/CEO of Traverse Connect, a regional economic development organization that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Venture North. Contact him at warren.call@traverseconnect.org.

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