My news feed has been saturated recently with stories about how American businesses are re-thinking their decision to bring all their workers back into the office before 4th Quarter. Some companies are sticking with their current plans; others are delaying their scheduled mass return until later in the year out of concern about the deadly new “delta variant.” This piece from Riley De León at CNBC seems to sum up the debate nicely:
“Recent polling of HR leaders by research firm Gartner found that the percentage of companies saying they would reopen workplaces in Q3 2021 fell by more than half from when it asked in late April to July 28, when it most recently canvassed HR executives. But while 23% of firms indicated to Gartner in July that Covid variants caused a delay in workplace reopening plans (down from 54% in April) an equal 23% said Covid variants had no impact — 30% said they have still made no decision on workplace reopening.”
The message I’ve taken away from all the chatter is that no one really knows what to do. More Americans are getting vaccinated (that’s good!) while new infections are increasing alarmingly (that’s bad!). The current vaccines seem to be doing a great job protecting people from severe illness when they do get infected (that’s great!), however fully vaccinated people are getting infected with (and are spreading) the delta variant (that’s [incoherent screaming deleted] awful!).
So … what’s the right thing for companies to do? Bring everyone back now and risk killing someone? Or stay fully scattered and risk continued lower productivity and poor morale? There’s a cost to pay either way, and blame is sure to follow for every perceived poor choice. What’s the safest option? Or the most pragmatic option? Or the option that’s least likely to end in ruinous lawsuits? Damned if I know …
I feel bad for my mates in the Business Continuity and Disaster Preparedness fields right now. They’re under tremendous pressure to accurately predict the future amidst a complicated and violently chaotic situation. The “right” answer will eventually be obvious. In ten years or so, we’ll all be bragging about how we totally “knew” the “best” answer all along and lamenting that no one recognized our brilliance. Right now, though, we might as well flip a coin or roll some dice.
The good news is that there are a few obvious contraindicators to the Great Return that we can deal with right now. Factors that have nothing at all to do with COVID-19 and don’t require any special cosmic foreknowledge. Factors like good old fashioned workplace violence!
As an example, I chatted with a couple of “box kickers”  last week about a shockingly brutal incident that happened recently at their workplace. If I understood their story right, their drama played out as follows:
These men work at a huge shipping centre that employs hundreds of labourers. Their site’s obsolete design, poor management practices, and challenging working conditions cause higher-than-average worker turnover. To be blunt, working conditions at their site are so poor that people who have other options don’t stick around long. This churn problem has caused their Human Resources department to take a “kid gloves” approach to employee discipline problems; they don’t want to lose workers if they can help it. Understandable, if ill-advised.
Over the last several months, a particularly anti-social and aggressive worker at their site has been written up several times for unacceptable behaviour. The fellow – let’s call him “Bob” – had recently gotten himself suspended for some sort of bullying. Not exactly a model employee.
As they told it, Bob returned to the office from his suspension full of anger and resentment … presumably over having been suspended. That seems reasonable. They said that Bob started acting aggressively towards his co-workers as soon as he arrived at work. As you’d expect, Bob’s bad behavior immediately triggered a new complaint. Someone alerted HR.
Now, you’d think that would be the end of the story. Known-bad employee Bob had already racked up enough demerits to get himself suspended as least once. The moment he engaged in new unprofessional conduct, Bob’s line managers and/or HR and/or Security should have chucked Bob off the site to prevent another suspension-worthy event. That’s not just common sense; it’s probably written in the HR manual. Check yours and see; I’ll bet there’s a rule there requiring the immediate removal of a consistently violent worker when they act up again.
This company, however, was obsessed with keeping enough workers to maintain productivity. All that churn, remember? So, instead of getting the boot, Bob was allowed to stay on the job. If anything, instead of calming Bob down, HR’s inaction seemed to encourage him. You can probably imagine how the rest of the day unfolded … or maybe you can’t, because what happened next involved a claw hammer.
Let me back up: according to the men telling me the story, Bob came to work angry and acted inappropriately with his co-workers. A co-worker complained about it to HR. HR did nothing (at least, nothing that anyone was aware of). Bob found out that someone had complained about him and went looking for who he thought had narc’d on him. Bob cornered two co-workers in a corner of the building where everyone knew the security cameras didn’t work. Mayhem ensured.
I’m not sure that I could script the scene; the way it was described to me, Bob brutally attacked one of his two co-workers with his fists. The victim, fearing for his life, fought back … first with his fists, and then with a claw hammer to the head. Both men left the facility on stretchers in the custody of the police. Worse, the second co-worker caught in the “no cameras zone” somehow got injured in the melee bad enough that managers reported to staff that she might have to have a limb amputated due to the severity of her injuries.
I don’t know the rest of the story. Heck, I barely know the actual story since the men relating it weren’t eyewitnesses. They could only pass on the stories they got from other workers, police investigators, and upper management. It’s certain that something was lost in the exchanges. Still, the specific details aren’t what matter for the purposes of this column.
What matters, I argue, is that the novel coronavirus isn’t the only reason to be concerned about a mass return to the office. Planners have many more workplace hazards to factor than just a plague. Many people have gotten “our of practice” in the basics of workplace etiquette and protocol during the last eighteen months. We joke about how office workers won’t know how to wear trousers anymore, but the reality is that everyone’s social skills have atrophied through disuse. It’s far easier to feign respect and attentiveness over a Zoom call than it is in person. It’s safe to scream obscenities at your boss when you have multiple mute buttons. You can punch your wall or hurl your pen in childish rage without consequences when no one is around to see it. We’ve all gotten sloppy because we could. That’s natural human behaviour.
Returning to the high-rises requires more than just a clear mask wear strategy. We’re all going to need a conduct refresher bootcamp and a patient transition period while we struggle to fit into our in-person work personae. Like athletes gone to seed, we’re all going to need an emotional and temperamental fitness regiment to get us back in minimum acceptable shape. There’s no way to simply pick up where we left off as if nothing had happened. Our senses of self-restraint and courtesy are weak, if not completely flaccid.
More importantly, we’ll all be returning to our old cubicle farms while the world is still burning outside the boardroom windows. People will return to the office parks with their key cards, their neckties, and eighteen months of bottled-up existential dread and impotent rage. Most everyone will be powder kegs, primed to explode at the first errant spark. Pre-plague protocols will not apply! Not for a long time …
Just like the box kickers related to me, HR, Legal, and Security protocols that made pragmatic sense just a few years back – like keeping potentially violent workers on the line to maintain production quotas – no longer make sense under current conditions. Tensions are higher, people’s self-control is degraded, and social conformance pressures are far less effective at regulating behavior. For everyone’s sake, we need to be deliberate, pragmatic, and decisive about how we plan to bring workers back into melee range of one another.
This isn’t going to be like the first workday following a three-day holiday weekend. It’s going to resemble nothing so much as the first day in a new office following a huge workplace tragedy. Things have changed. People are upset. If we try to pretend that nothing important has happened, we’re going to make an absolute mess of things … and people might leave the office in an ambulance. Not smart.
Normally, when security people talk about risk management, we discuss four possible ways to address a given risk: avoid it, control it, accept it, or transfer it. The problem we’re facing can’t be avoided; the longer we go without addressing this risk, the harder it’s going to be to address. We can’t afford to accept it, especially not if someone could get seriously hurt. We sure as hell can’t transfer it either. Even if we fired all our current volatile workers, we’d have to replace them all with new people who are going through the exact same stressors. All we can do it attempt to control it. That means talking about uncomfortable subjects and making plans now for a rough and rocky transition period.
Best get cracking. No matter how many times we kick this COVID can down the proverbial road, we eventually must drag our trouser-less tails back into the office. That means addressing suboptimal behaviour directly, early, and comprehensively. Deal with the problems immediately before Someone gets smacked with a claw hammer.
 American Army slang for “logistics specialists.”