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Being Clear Amidst Uncertainty

27 October 2020

Janie considered what she has learned after preparing weekly best practice updates for over a quarter, and realized that when dealing with tremendous uncertainty, clarity is even more important than ever.

Tags: communication, covid-19, janie read

Keeping up with all the changes and requirements that have been made to COVID-19 guidance over the past several months has been challenging. As an HR professional staying up to date is critical, so I started preparing best practice updates to organize all the guidance for safely returning to the office. When I started this project back in June, our team was fielding questions from clients and working to sort through the differences in policies from the CDC, the department of health, and the local city and county requirements. To help sift through the sometimes-conflicting recommendations, I began preparing a weekly update with best practices for safely returning to the office.

The document started as a quick reference guide to help us be confident that we knew the current state of affairs. Over time, others have found it to be a valuable resource for staying up to date and developing their own workplace policies. We aim to keep the guidance fact based and do not provide any specific recommendations, and we update each week to ensure that the information shared stays current. (If you’d like to receive these weekly updates, please reach out to be added to the list.)

As I prepared the most recent version, I realized that while the challenges we are facing right now with the pandemic might look different, the guidance I would give an HR colleague has not changed. At Allison Partners, one of the recommendations we have always shared with clients is the importance of being clear. Clarity is important because different people will have very different ideas about what good behavior looks like if you do not spell out exactly what it means to you. Many things that might seem obvious or straightforward are not; it can be easy to underestimate how precise you need to be.

For example, one of your office policies might be “Everyone is required to wear masks inside.” Practically speaking though, what does this mean? Are masks required inside a private office? What constitutes a private office? Is a cubicle with a partial partition “private” or “shared” space? How about in the bathroom? To be more explicit and minimize questions, you could say instead, “Masks are required at all times inside unless you are behind closed doors in a private office.” Under this policy, masks are required in a bathroom or in a cubicle with a partial partition, but not in a private office with a full door.

Another example where clarity can be helpful is when defining what you consider exposure. If you have a confirmed case in the workplace, who should you consider exposed? The guidance that I find clearest is “Consider anyone who has been within six feet of someone with a confirmed case for a combined total of 15 minutes over the past 24 hours to be exposed.” This is an easy to establish benchmark and having this level of specificity makes it easier to determine who you need to communicate with, and who needs to stay home and isolate.

These are small examples to illustrate how clarity can help to eliminate confusion. I understand that it can be hard to be clear and specific when things are so uncertain, or when there is conflicting information available from credible sources. You run the risk of feeling that the time you invested learning something was wasted when the recommendations are later changed. Be transparent and tell people that the guidelines shared today are based on the best information you have right now and may need to be adjusted in the future. The more uncertainty involved the more important it is to maintain clear consistent communications and updates when things change. When the expectations are clear, it is much easier for people to follow them.


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