Managing a Workplace with Varying Levels of Post-Pandemic Comfort

It’s going to take some people years to work through residual anxiety from the pandemic, and it’s possible some will never be fully comfortable again in crowded indoor environments.

I recently attended an event at which a woman I know only partially joked about the difficulty of easing back into life without masks. We were in crowded places and no one had a mask on. I was tremendously relieved and grateful because I always loathed mask-wearing. I understood the science behind its efficacy in indoor settings and complied, but never tolerated masking well. However, there are those who adjusted nicely to mask-wearing, so well that some came to think of masks as a natural extension of themselves—an accessory they might even forget they were wearing.

I know one of those people. When she returned to her office, she and a colleague became upset to see a co-worker who did not wear her mask, even though, at the time, company rules still required masking. What happens now that most companies are probably not requiring masks at all in the office? Is your company ready for employees to experience a work environment in which pandemic safety precautions are optional? Here in New York City, much to my dismay, even vaccination requirements are dropping. I’m no fan of masking, but working and recreating in indoor settings in which everyone was assured of being vaccinated gave me comfort.

The Huffington Post published a piece at the beginning of March by Monica Torres on “How to Cope When You’re the Only One at Work Wearing a Mask.” The article recommends that those who still choose to wear a mask should remind themselves that we’re still in a pandemic and that masks (certain types anyway) are known to reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission. In other words, they should feel good about their choice, and think of themselves as smarter than their non-mask-wearing colleagues.

The article also notes that masking doesn’t have to be an “always or never” proposition. There are specific circumstances, I would think, such as a crowded conference room in which people are talking and there is little ventilation, in which masking makes sense. Another compromise is to wear the mask when getting up from your workstation to walk around the office, but to forego it when sitting at your desk.

If you have more than one employee who wants to continue abiding by pandemic safety measures, you could set up a section of the office, or even a whole floor, especially for those people. Everyone in that section or floor would be proven to be vaccinated and would be required to wear a mask whenever they were not eating or drinking.

The practice of wearing a mask at all times except when eating and drinking, however, raises questions. Once you take it off to eat and drink, does wearing it at all continue to serve a purpose? So far, the answer to that question has been, yes, as you still have to wear a mask on airplanes, which have food and beverage service.

If your office(s) is based in a place where the outdoor temperature is mild for much of the year (not too hot or too cold), you could keep the windows open to allow for air circulation. In New York City, there are at least a couple months in the spring and fall when an office with many windows could keep a comfortable room temperature just by keeping the windows open (although this does present safety issues in skyscrapers). This is a change that could both save a company significant money in lower energy costs while lowering the risk of transmission of all airborne viruses. Psychologically, it also would be interesting to note the impact of working in fresh air versus processed air. It also could be a great time to explore creating terraces with overhead coverings. Skittish employees could work on the terrace and meetings could be held on the terrace. Mostly the pandemic made us worse by heightening anxiety and neuroses, but one way it has made us better is by renewing our appreciation for outdoor settings.

When I had my birthday brunch last year, I chose an outdoor setting in which the tables were spaced far apart. Everyone at our table, with the exception of a young child, was vaccinated. It felt like an exceptionally safe environment. Yet one of my guests panicked and started muttering to himself, “I don’t want to be around people.” He couldn’t take the anxiety of reintegrating into communal society, and had to leave. I bet work versions of this person will exist at some companies. In those cases, you may need to allow a mental health exemption for that person to continue working from home. It’s going to take some people years to work through residual anxiety from the pandemic, and it’s possible that some will never be fully comfortable again in crowded indoor environments.

How is your company adjusting to a mask-and-vaccination optional world? Are you accommodating employees who are not comfortable working in an office in which everyone has not been vaccinated and not everyone (or anyone) is wearing a mask?