April 13, 2021

Return to Work: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Hybrid Teams

by Johanna Lyman in Blog Roll, Leadership

As organizations gear up for the much anticipated “return to work,” we encourage clients to look beyond “best practices” and consider taking a trauma-informed approach to their plans. Why?

Because whether you realize it or not, everyone in this country has experienced trauma in the past 13 months. Some have experienced several traumas, but no one has been immune.

Trauma is simply defined as a deeply disturbing or distressing experience. Over the last year (and then some), we’ve been subjected to a number of deeply disturbing or distressing experiences:

  • Overnight, our usual way of being in the world was ripped away from us. We were told we had to work from home, wear masks in public, and stay six feet away from others. Many of us haven’t had a hug in over a year. We haven’t seen people smile in person. The emotional toll has been huge.
  • Over thirty million Americans have or have had COVID. Over 550,000 have died from the disease (as of March 31, 2021). Virtually all of us know someone (usually many people) who’ve had the virus. Many of us know someone who’s died. There’s an immense physical and emotional toll to this.
  • We’ve experienced the trauma of seeing George Floyd murdered by a police officer, of Ahmaud Arbery shot by neighbors while jogging, and Breonna Taylor shot in her sleep by police. And those are just the three most televised; there are more.
  • We’ve witnessed the horrifying rise in anti-Asian hate crimes since the former president insisted on calling coronavirus “the Chinese virus.” Here in the Bay Area, not a day goes by without the media reporting yet another Asian person, many of them elderly, being beaten by strangers because of how they look.
  • On January 6, 2021, we witnessed an armed mob overtake the United States Capitol building as members of Congress, including the Vice President of the country, cowered in terror.

And that’s just a handful of traumatic experiences we’ve been subjected to. So yes, you should take a trauma-informed approach to returning your employees to work, whether you are choosing to re-open physical offices, remain remote, or create a hybrid plan.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) identifies six principles that structure a trauma-informed approach:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency
  3. Empowerment, voice, and choice
  4. Peer support
  5. Collaboration and mutuality
  6. History, gender, and culture

These values speak, in one way or another, to certain aspects of social life that traumatic experiences can leave in a state of disrepair.

Some of the things you’ll want to consider in order to take a trauma-informed approach to your plans include:

  • What mental health support do you have in place or think you’ll need? One thing you can do that’s pretty easy and low cost: offer a mindfulness training for employees. Mindfulness practices help reduce stress and improve health. Ask about ours!
  • How will you make it equitable for remote workers to get job advancement opportunities in a hybrid situation? One of the potential dangers of remaining all or partially remote is the lack of informal networking, mentoring, and collaboration that occurs in an in-person setting. These can be set up virtually if they’re part of the overall plan.
  • How can you give employees as much agency as possible? Studies show that when people have control over an experience, they’re happier. When they are consulted about a problem and their ideas are used to craft the solution, they’re significantly more on board with the change.
  • What physical measures need to be in place to ensure physical safety? Sadly, the social distancing we’ve endured for over a year will likely remain with us for several months longer. Pre-pandemic, lots of people had the bad habit of coming to work when they felt under the weather. Consider putting a policy in place to prevent that; a review of your sick policy may be in order.
  • What are some best practices from this past year of remote working that can be integrated into the way you work and collaborate going forward?

How will you tend the fires of company culture? Undoubtedly, your culture has undergone a change in the past 13 months. Perhaps for the better, but perhaps not. It’s important to take an honest look at your culture and strategize ways to improve it.

None of this is undoable, but our current climate does call for some added planning and empathy as you move forward with teams working in a variety of capacities.