Staying True to What Matters During a Pandemic

“The world’s turned upside down.” These famous words, invoked in a 17th century English ballad and most recently in the musical, Hamilton, describe our current time quite well. This was largely true it seemed, just a few months ago as the world political order was disintegrating. But that was before COVID-19 truly turned the world upside down, taking so much of what we have regarded to be normal and predictable with it. 

Whew. Just two weeks ago, I was still believing that I could plan visits with friends, teach classes in person and meet over coffee, go to a play, or take planned trips in late March, mid-April, and July. I’m still holding out naive hope for July, but I’m a naturally optimistic person. 

Just a week ago, I still thought I could take a plane from Ottawa, Canada to Madison, Wisconsin, then return after a weekend with friends. Now, the border is closed, airports are largely devoted to processing thousands attempting to return home (only to self-quarantine), and my city of a million people is largely shut down. When I hear that schools and businesses are closed for a couple of weeks, I realize they are denying the reality that we have entered a much longer period of enforced separation. 

Yet, we keep on with our work. In this new reality, many of us are able to work virtually, while many others are providing health care, protective services, groceries, transportation, and other work that is essential to navigating the crisis. We all do what we are trained to do, and we also must now learn how to do it differently. Ironically, those organizations (for example) that made it difficult to telecommute or have a flexible schedule now demand an entirely new way of working. Yet, we are still creatures of habit, clinging to old ways of contacting customers, finding information, responding to hierarchies of permission. 

As we have discussed in What Matters at Work, there are three sets of needs to be addressed in our negotiating through conflicts and other meaningful issues: Substantive needs relate to the ‘stuff’ we are doing, the tasks to be accomplished, the orders to be fulfilled. Process needs relate to how we address those tasks so people feel they are informed, included, and can readily see how decisions are made. Relational needs relate to how we feel respected, how we sustain trust, how we enhance our relationships at times of vulnerability and fear. All three sets of needs are always present, though they are perceived and framed differently by each of us. Due to our race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and our life experiences, we have different sets of priorities and interests in What Matters regarding these needs. 

I appreciate many colleagues and fellow facilitators who are offering ‘tips for virtual meetings’ and ‘strategies for working at home’ at this time. Such resources are certainly beneficial for getting tasks done in our new workplaces, and the variants on Zoom, WebEx, and Hangouts that are becoming primary meeting platforms have already been well-tested. But the Substantive aspects feel secondary to me as I look at where we need guidance, and I’m much more focused on the Relational and Process aspects as I look at What Matters in such times. 

Where should we be focused right now? Here are a few initial ideas:

  1. Connect with One Another. It Matters A Great Deal. Connecting with one another is primary at this time, and since we cannot do so face-to-face (at least closer than 2 meters!), we must find other ways to do so that reinforce the importance of connections and which keep our best practices top of mind. There is a genuine risk of isolation during this period, as well as the paradoxical challenge of being ‘on top of one another’ at home… These experiences need valid, trust-based spaces to be expressed. Managers and project leaders should facilitate ways staff can foster such workplace connections, allowing those virtual meetings to include ‘check in’ periods that let participants unburden, offer ‘creative ideas for getting through this,’ etc. 
  1. Let’s focus on the experience of personal transition in the face of this huge external professional change. COVID-19 offers a global case study in systems disruption and massive change. Many of our agencies and companies have had disaster recovery plans in place for responding to serious events like tornadoes, floods, snow storms, etc. We have crisis management teams to deal with critical events, including ‘active shooters’ in a workplace or chemical spills that require quick evacuations. Granted, this pandemic has transcended most planning and preparation:  Yet we should still turn to those structures we have created, those processes for managing the crisis that we have practiced, those relationships that have been fostered to consult for their caring wisdom. If we follow those protocols, many of the best strategies emerge.

But the personal transition each of us is experiencing is not addressed by such plans. As I’ve noted in my work, William Bridges offers some excellent ideas that are instructive here: Core to his approach is recognizing that we go through Endings and Beginnings,  and the heart of the experience is the Neutral Zone of uncertainty, stress, and powerlessness. As we notice Endings, we need to acknowledge them, perhaps even celebrating what they provided that can no longer happen. For example, I was speaking recently with a client who is missing the ease with which he could go to the next cubicle and ask for help or advice… it just isn’t the same doing so through an email or waiting for the virtual meeting next week! Acknowledge this: He should tell his co-workers (as they are all now working apart) that he misses the banter. That opens up the chance for them to make similar comments. Over time, we may miss ‘the good old days,’ and go through feelings of anger, upset, denial, and depression regarding our painful loss and the legitimate fears that we and those we care about will become seriously ill. But Endings are normal, and as leaders we must support their expression and help our staff teams and co-workers cope with them.

And then there are Beginnings, new ways of working and living that may feel clunky at first, but which start to become familiar soon enough: How do we get work done with kids climbing the walls? How do we seek privacy to work when both parents (if that is the situation) can get things done? This requires communication and problem solving for families, and it isn’t something we have prepared to discuss. In talking with another client, she shared that while almost everyone must now work from home, most do not have computers connected and outfitted to do so. Yes, there are real costs associated with addressing these needs, but just as powerful are the channels by which staff can express their needs without feeling guilty or incompetent, and how managers listen to these concerns without marginalizing them in the face of not knowing the answers. I’m also hearing many workplaces either continuing with ‘business as usual,’ (which is likely quite dangerous as a public health matter) or pretending that this will only last 2-3 weeks. I get it. I’ve felt that way, as well; it just isn’t helpful for addressing the real emergent needs of the situation. 

Finally, there is the abyss of the Neutral Zone, that uncertain period that may go on for a much longer period than we accept: How widespread will COVID-19 spread in our community? How long will it be before we return to ‘normal’ ways of working? What will the new ‘normal’ actually be and how will I cope with it? How will the company survive? 

These are all normal questions to ask at this time, and they have answers that will only emerge over time. We just don’t know, and as leaders we feel unprepared to go to our staff teams with such responses. But if we honestly navigate the Neutral Zone with openness, respect, and compassion, we will retain necessary energy and collective good will to manage the answers once they are known to us.

  1. Go back to Core Intentions and Values, and Focus on the “Why” in making work choices: It is easy to assume that our work days start and end at the usual times, that the workload should be comparable to what it has been previously, and that we should expect ourselves to “stay focused” on those same customer service goals we have had before. But these aren’t necessarily What Matters. Just as in the start of the book, I encourage you to look inward, to focus on your core intentions and values, and then the personal and professional Core Story that guides you. Nurture those actions, and allow yourself to let go of some of the other minutiae that can wait. If you aren’t sure which things are priorities, consult with others to gain clarity — together, you can figure this out.
  1. Certainly, allow yourself energizing diversions and nurture the creative spirit! Take a few minutes to doodle, listen to a song, do a word puzzle, or call a friend. But also remind yourself to focus on those things for which you have energy and not get wrapped up in vague assertions that, “I have to get this done.” 

This is a start. We are going to need to consider and reconsider our work priorities and life priorities quite a bit over the coming weeks and months. Please add your ideas and continue the conversation.

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

I am a facilitator, mediator, educator, and consultant specializing in addressing complex challenges and disputes within organizations. I bring over 40 years experience to this work and offer two recent books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021) to these efforts.

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