Getting work done when nothing’s business as usual

Teamwork can be hard. It’s even harder in a time of professional distancing. Here are tips to make it easier

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything:

Q: It looks like people are going back to the office, or at least some of us are! And there are all of these new rules and things to remember, like wearing masks and social distancing and so on. My question is, with everything going on, how am I supposed to be collaborative and productive? How can I focus on brainstorming and coming up with new ideas with my coworkers—to say nothing of actually physically working together while staying six feet apart—when, in the back of my mind, I’m afraid of getting sick or getting the person I’m working with sick? 

In my last column, I talked a lot about adaptability and flexibility and how these times in particular call for a fine-tuning of these skills, which are going to serve you wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. The hard truth is that the rules, information, and expectations right now are constantly changing (except, yes, definitely wear a mask if you’re coming into contact with other people, and yes, definitely do your best to social distance, to read and listen to science, and to wash your hands!).

As we learn more and more about how COVID-19 moves around and infects people, and as we wait and see what is next on the horizon—hopefully a vaccine, sooner rather than later—we are going to have to keep adapting and doing the best we can to protect ourselves and others. So take a deep (safe) breath, prepare yourself for change, and keep reading.

1. Be proactive

Speaking of reading: There is a wealth of information out there. In preparation for a return to the office, make sure to read up not only on what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends in terms of protecting yourself and others from COVID-19, but also find out what your company plans to do in the office to protect you and your teammates. If your company hasn’t already sent out this information, reach out to human resources or your manager to ask for it. In general, offices should be adapting to allow for professional distancing, increased sanitization, and lower elevator capacities. They should, like WeWork has done, be taking steps to to review and track indoor air quality—to make sure it’s in line with CDC and ASHRAE (that’s the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) recommendations—and thinking about how the workplace can support your health and well-being. Check out what OSHA says about preparing workplaces for COVID-19, as well as what the CDC recommends for businesses and workplaces reopening. 

Once you’ve done your due diligence, you’ll likely feel a bit better about how your office is preparing to keep you safe, and that may spur a bit more of that creative and collaborative energy. You might also create a bag of supplies, like hand sanitizer, gloves, extra masks, and so forth, to carry with you on any commute to work and in the office. Having that may help soothe you, and it’s handy either way.

Note that, legally, employers are required to provide their employees with a workplace free of recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious bodily harm. If they’re not doing that, you’re going to have to make a decision about how to respond. Might you request continuing to work remotely? Can you ask for certain procedures to be put in place before you return? How does your company plan to notify you if someone close to you tests positive for COVID-19? Because you’re right: If you feel unsafe, it’s nearly impossible to be productive or collaborative, and no one should have to feel unsafe in the workplace.

2. Rely on your established skills and solutions

In terms of productivity and teamwork, well, you only have to look to yourself. Most of us have been in some degree of lockdown since March, but you’ve continued to get work done and to collaborate on some level, I presume, when not (rightfully) panicking? You don’t have to forget about all of the productivity and teamwork solutions you’ve become expert at in the months preceding your return to the office: There’s Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts Meet, email, and, of course, old-fashioned phone calls, all of which you’ve probably used quite a lot of not only in the past few months but also before then.

Remember how we used to bemoan our habit of sitting at our desks and emailing or Slacking one another instead of getting up to speak in person? Well, maybe there’s some good in that old habit. Being back in the office doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do everything face-to-face. You can and should make use of all those old techniques, as they fit your needs. 

3. But think about new ones, too 

Productivity and creativity thrive on change, new ideas, and adventures, so brainstorming can help. What might you do that’s new in these times, that will allow you to be both safe and work with your teammates? What about outdoor group meetings or one-on-ones? What about walking meetings (walks boost creativity) in which you and a coworker can talk and exchange ideas in the fresh air? What about trying some creative exercises together, even remotely? Might you take this moment to seek out new mentorships—whether you are a mentor or a mentee—which you could also forge remotely and which might bring you energy in a new way? 

Be on the lookout, because there’s sure to be an array of new tools and techniques that emerge as we practice social and professional distancing and get used to new rules around personal space in the office. Think color-coded wristbands or buzzing bracelets that note when you’re getting too close, as well as desk shields and regular temperature checks, to name a few. If something sounds like it would work for your company, whether it provides office safety or easier collaboration, suggest it to your manager or human resources.

4. Reflect on your purpose 

Talking about your goals and what you want to achieve—and helping others do the same—can help you remember what’s important and why you do what you do. Think about what you love about your job, your teammates, and the collaborative work you do together as a way of re-centering yourself in these times. What you’re doing has meaning, and you’re simply continuing a process of figuring out how to do it best, given the new challenges we’re all facing. And be assured: As new challenges become old hat, others will emerge. Think about how normal it has become to see people in masks. We are adaptable! Things will become easier as we go. 

Oh, and if you haven’t taken some time off from work yet this year, make sure to schedule a break, so you have something to look forward to. Even if you can’t go anywhere, vacations are still very much needed.

5. Stay patient (and stay strong)

Prepare yourself. We are going to be in flux for a while. There will be some discomfort and adjustments as we continue. Change is always hard, and sometimes the hardest part is just wrapping your head around it, especially when it keeps changing. But we’re in it for the long haul, and as with everything, this too will pass. As always, if you find yourself really struggling, please reach out to a trained health professional for support and advice

In the meantime, make sure to reward yourself for everything you’re doing to cope, and congratulate yourself and your coworkers for successes, no matter how small they may seem. Even a little productivity goes a long way these days. Remember, Zoom happy hours are still an option—but so are outside gatherings with a small group of people wearing masks.

Jen Doll is a journalist and author of the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times, and other publications.

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