AMC employees begin taking work back to office with social distancing guidelines

By Kari HawkinsJune 11, 2020

AMC employees take precautions to return to office
The threat of COVID-19 spread is making returning to work a challenge for many employers and employees. At Army Materiel Command, employees are slowly transitioning back to the office environment while practicing social distancing guidelines, and developing new ways to address health concerns and employee wellbeing.

(Photo Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Commerce)

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Looking back on the last few months, there is no doubt Army Materiel Command employees have accomplished the mission despite the workplace changes, personal adjustments and health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it’s time to readjust again as employees are being slowly phased back to the office environment.

While most employees recognize workplace reintegration is the right and normal thing to do, it also comes with a heightened level of concern for health and safety. As employees re-enter the on-site work environment, they bring with them a variety of thoughts, emotions and expectations related to the past few month’s social distancing measures.

“Some individuals are ready to resume pre-virus operations, returning back to a ‘normal’ work schedule and seeing their colleagues for the first time in over three months. It will be an exciting time for them. Others may be apprehensive and fearful, not knowing what to expect,” said Valerie Francis, AMC’s Health Promotion Program Manager and a Master Resilience Trainer.

Just as employees have a wide range of concerns and emotions related to reintegration in the work environment, they also can have widely different views regarding the ongoing use of teleworking.

“The ability to telework has allowed employees to take care of their families while still accomplishing the AMC mission, and that’s a win/win for both,” Francis said. “The need to social distance to protect against the coronavirus resulted in much stress and uncertainties, for most, so knowing one had the ability to keep their family safe was paramount during these first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“However, telework was not without disadvantages. We are social beings and the need to connect with other people is important. For employees sheltering at home, it may have led to isolation and fear, which could quickly result in depression. That is why it has been so important for individuals to check on each other as encouraged by (AMC commander) Gen. (Gus) Perna.”

While AMC supervisors and managers have encouraged employees to remain self-quarantined at home during their teleworking hours, employees have been on their own to make decisions regarding all aspects of social distancing in their off hours. Since mid-March some employees have remained nearly exclusively at home while others have branched out cautiously as needed and yet others have been more relaxed concerning social distancing in their personal time. These different reactions to COVID-19 relates to how employees will react when returning to the workplace, Francis said.

“Fear of contracting the virus, especially if you have not been slowly integrating back into the community, may cause apprehension for some individuals,” she said. “However, we all must remember the reintegration is a deliberate and phased approach, and safety is a top priority of our senior leaders.”

Some employees may be hesitant to return to the workplace for yet another reason: their appreciation for the autonomy and freedom that teleworking allows.

“They may appreciate the ability to wear casual attire and walk a few feet to their home office, and not having to commute,” Francis said. “They may like the freedom to set their own hours or to work around family obligations that may come up. They may enjoy the quiet of their home because they can better focus on their work tasks.”

During reintegration, Francis said it is key that supervisors and managers keep in mind the individual differences on their work teams.

“It is important that supervisors address employee concerns individually. There is not a cookie-cutter approach. I encourage supervisors to let employees express concerns and demonstrate empathy to help make the integration a success for the team,” she said.

How well employees reintegrate into the workplace is dependent on several factors, including how supervisors and managers have communicated and tasked their employees during the teleworking months.

“A smooth transition back to the workplace starts with early supervision/manager engagement, which has been encouraged since the beginning of maximum telework,” Francis said. “We all knew returning to the workplace would happen, we just did not know when. Beginning early discussions with employees allowed supervisors and managers to address challenges and concerns along the way, to minimize surprises when it was time to return.”

With AMC bringing back only a fraction of its workforce at a time, who and how those employees return can create friction among employee teams, causing feelings of exclusion, jealousy and depression between those returning earlier and those returning later.

“It is important for supervisors/managers to be transparent and explain the rationale of how team members are being integrated back to the building,” Francis said. “This strategy will help alleviate team dissention and exclusion. As supervisors make reintegration decisions, it is imperative the information is shared with employees at the same time. This will allow questions to be answered so everyone can hear the message and seek clarification if needed. Employees need to remember supervisors are making decisions based on mission requirements, and employees who are called back earlier are not more valued than employees called back later.”

Just as AMC has made changes to control the flow of employees in and out of the workplace, the command is also implementing policies and procedures to limit physical contact within the workplace in hopes of reducing the possibility of the spread of COVID-19.

“Embrace the new ‘temporary’ normal and think of creative ways to interact in the workplace,” Francis said. “Strategizing ideas together will foster cohesiveness and camaraderie. However, it is vital for supervisors to lead the team, instilling optimism that together they can overcome challenges.”

Employees should expect, at least for now, the workplace environment will not include potluck celebrations, large group gatherings, full conference room meetings and other work-related events that bring employees physically to the same area. But this should not stop supervisors and managers from conducting team-related activities.

“Every team is different, so it is important for supervisors to solicit input from each team member, and as a group,” Francis said. “Team building activities can still occur as long as social distancing is considered.”

Some ideas Francis suggested for rebuilding team comraderie include: conducting team meetings while walking around the building exterior, which provides the added benefit of exercise; selecting large conference rooms for team meetings and lunches where there is enough room to adhere to the six-foot social distancing recommendation; and engaging in fun activities that allow the team to share thoughts and ideas while staying six feet apart.

Rebuilding comraderie shouldn’t be difficult, Francis said, for established teams. But, returning to a team environment may require a jump start to get employees realigned to the team.

“Communication is key,” she said. “Communication is more than just an exchange of information, it is actively listening and showing empathy. In preparation for the integration, the Command Surgeon's most recent newsletter focused on communication. I would encourage all employees to review it to learn tips on how to enhance their communication skills.”

Francis said resilient employees will take the things they learned about themselves, each other and their jobs during the teleworking months and apply that knowledge in the workplace to be better, more productive and happier employees.

“It is during challenges our character is built,” Francis said. “Were you a good role model? Did you take the time to help a family member, friend, neighbor or co-worker when there was a need, and did you honorably do your job to meet the Army and AMC mission? As we look back in six months, I hope we can all say, 'I am a better person for the experience, and will take those lessons learned and use them during the next challenge. Lastly, an anonymous quote for all to consider, ‘Our true character is that person we become when no one is watching.’”