Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

One Easy Way to Social Distance at Work

Dear Joseph,

I am in a bit of a conundrum at work. We were recently asked to return to offices despite the escalating pandemic. Much of what we’re coming in for could easily be done from home. This week a companywide email was sent out requesting that we keep our office doors open to improve ventilation. I tried to follow the new rule, and people kept coming and talking to me in my office doorway (which is quite close to my desk). I feel stuck between breaking a new rule and being subjected to the whims of my coworkers as far as social distancing goes.

I raised my concerns to my coworkers, but it seems they only remember for a few days at best. I understand that everyone has a different comfort level and that I am on the more cautious side of the spectrum, but how do I remain in this work situation and preserve my mental and physical health? Or is that even the right question to be asking?

COVID Conversations

Dear COVID Conversations,

I’ve got an out-of-the-box suggestion for you. And I give it a very high likelihood of success. And, if it succeeds, you’ll never have to have another conversation about this topic again. This idea comes from our book, Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. Interested?

Let me lend credibility to my suggestion with two stories.

First is the story of Ed Feeney. Ed was Vice President of System Performance at Emery Air Freight when the company pioneered the use of standardized shipping containers. The new technology was expected to dramatically reduce shipping costs. Except it didn’t. Feeney investigated and soon discovered the problem: most shipping containers leaving less than half full. The company spent almost the same amount to ship a full container as a half empty one. This meant that revenues were less than half of their potential. Try as he might, Feeney struggled to get loading crews to get the boxes up to 80% of their capacity. He tried reminders. He tried bonuses. He tried threats. Sound familiar? Getting people to routinely support a simple request seemed to require relentless attention. Until Ed tried one simple thing. He created a visual cue. He painted a line inside every container labeled “Fill to here.” The number of properly filled boxes rose to 95% immediately.

The second story takes place at a hospital. The infection control team struggled to get caregivers to wash their hands before and after making contact with patients. Once again, they tried reminders, campaigns, accountability. But a breakthrough improvement happened when they… drum roll… painted a line. The put a bold yellow line at the threshold to every door and attached a hand gel dispenser on the outside wall on the doorknob side of the frame. The yellow line bore the admonition, “WIWO” (Wash In, Wash Out). Once again, compliance improved immediately and substantially.

You should do the same. Post a pleasant reminder by your door. Something to the effect of “Thank you for chatting with me from behind the line.”

Let me know how it works!


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5 thoughts on “One Easy Way to Social Distance at Work”

  1. John Shoucair

    I have a similar reminder on my floor. I’ve added a vertical fan with remote control as extra remedy.

  2. Ben Vaterlaus

    Was thinking the same thing as Joseph on this solution. When I had employees in cubicles who wanted to be “not disturbed” they put up little paperclip chains over the “doorway” so that those walking by knew to not interrupt or even to enter. A simple string sign stating “Trying to Social Distance” or “Please wear a mask if coming to this office” could be a visual reminder for coworkers.

  3. Marji

    Excellent! Trader Joe’s stores have a sign at the check stands saying, “Customers, please stand in the yellow box.” And there I wait, in the yellow square conveniently panted on the floor. This makes me wonder where else some specific visual clues of a direct request might inmprove things. Thanks for the tips!

  4. Allen Lilley

    Since signs are only effective if people read … and follow … its message, an even wilder, outside-the-box tactic which COVID Conversations might try is to install a collapsible “doggie” gate in the office doorway. People would then perhaps think twice before carelessly entering the office. LOL

  5. Cannot Find Enough Career Opportunities? Change How You Think

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