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The Leader’s Role in Fostering New Social Norms as Workplaces Reopen


By now, almost all organizations around the world are somewhere on their re-opening journey, whether starting to plan, bringing employees back to the workplace, or assessing “what’s next” for the future of their work environments.

Companies and organizations are appropriately focused on a range of activities such as resetting the physical work environment to achieve social distancing, installing signage, adjusting building systems, securing sustainable quantities of supplies, and adapting service levels in areas such as cleaning and food service.

But few leaders can confidently predict the reaction of their workforce upon entering these adapted environments. One corporate real estate executive summed up a concern that many peers share when he said, “we’ve worked through how to safely re-open our workplaces…until the people show up!”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently clarified that COVID-19 primarily spreads through person-to-person contact1. This means that if governmental orders, public health organizations, and/or corporate policies dictate practices such as social distancing and mask usage, preparing the workplace – and perhaps more importantly, the workforce – for this new normal should be a top priority.

As companies and organizations begin to bring their employees back into the workplace, leaders have a critical role to play in not only communicating to their teams that “things are different,” but also helping their teams prepare for the experience of coming back to a dramatically transformed work environment, and feel well oriented about expected health and wellness practices as they do so.


Returning employees will experience a range of emotions. Some will quickly adapt to the different circumstances, while others may be confused or scared, or even unwilling to follow newly established guidelines. It’s critical for leaders to acknowledge and prepare for this spectrum of reactions in order to rebuild a high-performance workplace community.

Before COVID-19, many organizations used the well-established practice of “safety moments” – short talks on safety-related topics at the beginning of meetings, shift changes, and other events. Safety moments were designed to raise situational and behavioral awareness in order to mitigate risk and avoid injuries in the workplace. In the COVID-19 era, leaders in organizations of all kinds will play a critical role in helping their organizations and their workforce adopt practices like safety moments, as well as other purposeful actions, to promote a safety culture for the organization, including its employees, customers, contractors and visitors.

Beyond safety moments, there are many things leaders can do to support an effective and safe transition back into the COVID-19-adjusted work environment2:

As we continue the journey of reopening workplaces worldwide, the importance of reconfiguring the workplace to support social distancing, enhanced cleaning practices, and improved ventilation cannot be overstated. But much is also riding on individual behaviors inside the workplace and beyond. Business leaders have a critical role to play in facilitating a transition back to work that builds a culture that is safe, health-conscious, caring, collaborative, and productive.

1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FAQ: How Does COVID-19 Spread, June 2, 2020 https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html#How-COVID-19-Spreads
2Based on a conversation with Rajiv Rimal Chair of Department of Health, Behavior and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (June, 2020)
3Scientific American, What a Difference a Plague Makes, May 14, 2020 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/masks-reveal-new-social-norms-what-a-difference-a-plague-makes/
4Based on conversations with Shannon Magari, ScD, MS, MPH, Principal and VP, Colden Corporation and Visiting Scientist, Harvard School of Public Health (June, 2020)



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