These past few days have seen more and more of the faculty and staff return to campus, as the students arrive to begin their in-person work. My chats with colleagues suggest that there are widely enjoyed benefits of the return, but also some concerns that need voice.
There is a widespread belief that the productivity boost through total electronic communication (email, text, zoom) came at a price. It’s true that we didn’t have the commute time that was onerous, but it’s also probably true that many replaced the commute time with more work hours. The telework in a near lock-down setting was also stripped of interpersonal richness. It was efficient but it came at a cost.
One of the benefits of returning to campus is being in the same space with a respected co-worker. Catching up with changes in their lives, commiserating about the challenges faced over the last sixteen months, and renewing work collaborations is rewarding. Just a sense that this is a step to a new normalcy offers comfort, even with the added concern of the variants.
However, it’s clear to each of us how we perceive our safety at home. The vast majority of us found that acceptable. It’s even true that most ventured outside their home for various errands, often mixing with strangers. Accepting those risks became comfortable for us. For the most part our behaviors proved to offer sufficient protection for our health. We think we know how to make that work.
Thus, now as we return, various questions are arising.
While interacting with long-known colleagues is a bright attraction of physical return to work, other aspects are less certain. None of us have interacted with others within a population that has vaccination rates far above 90%. What will that offer us?
Most of us haven’t been inside buildings at the university in many months. What is the internal environment of those buildings from a SARS-CoV-2 risk perspective?
Those of us in very small households have not maintained in-person social interactions for many months. Our social skills, our abilities to interact with multiple people simultaneously may have atrophied.
Some have experienced the damage of COVID to the unvaccinated and established much more restrictive personal rules on social interaction. They thus may have more concerns about physical proximity of an office layout than others.
Because of these differences, the many commentaries on returning to work seem to have large scale agreement on messages (echoed by guidance the Georgetown Human Relations has delivered):
- Each of us needs to think more explicitly about the bases of any return-to-work concerns we have; we need to seek more information about those concerns.
- We all need to foster a work environment in which our colleagues are comfortable articulating their personal levels of risk tolerance; we must expect variation on this.
- Supervisors should take time to ask each staff member about their adaptation to in-person work repeatedly over the coming days.
- While the mission of the work group must take priority, flexibility within work spaces in reaction to those individual concerns should be sought.
- Georgetown has the obligation to communicate answers to those concerns (our go-to site is https://www.georgetown.edu/coronavirus/).
- Patience is a good attribute for these next few weeks; we should all maintain the assumption that all are acting with good will.
- We all need to take time for the in-person interactions that renew human relationships; together, we can create a safe space for each other.
- The pandemic is not easily predictable; we must accept uncertainty.
- Everyone should know of the enhanced resources of the university to deal with anxieties about the return (https://www.georgetown.edu/everyhoyacares/).
We will get through the return to work more successfully if we attend to this guidance.