Reflections on returning to work in the midst of a Pandemic

  by Lisa Z. Webne-Behrman, Ph.D, C.Psych.

I’m pleased to welcome my Partner in What Matters, Lisa Webne-Behrman, as a Guest this week! Her insights and experience are most welcome at this unique time…

After four months of working remotely, many businesses are preparing to have staff return to their usual offices. This is causing anxiety for many, uncertainty regarding how clients and customers will respond, and organizational stressors as both leaders and staff members attempt to grasp concrete plans in the face of deep uncertainty. 

Living things seem to naturally desire movement and growth.  My indoor and outdoor plants move toward the light with what seems like a strong desire to produce, to perform, to do.  We are in the throes of a worldwide event compelling us to consider how we “do” our work, why we do so, and in what manner we will reopen our physical places of employment.  We reflect on these important questions in the midst of the Pandemic from a position of incomplete information about the future and not a small degree of current chaos, adding significantly to the complexities of the problem.  Given this, and the need to plan, produce, and do, the following guidelines are offered with humility and as a place to start:

A.  Create a framework for re-opening.  Share the information with all involved in a concise and clear manner.  Provide the broad strokes without getting too stuck in the weeds.  Procedural details of safety are of course important, though try not to lead with this detailed information.  Convey the basic framework including:

  • Affirm the Values and Intentions that form the foundation of the framework; 
  • Name the broad phases of reopening; and 
  • Clarify the criteria required to identify progress and determine when to move from one phase to the next.  More on this below.

B.  Identify criteria that are easily understood, identifiable to all involved.  The criteria guide the process. In this case with reopening, we move forward as specific criteria are met.  In some cases, they indicate the need to slow down or even reverse course.  Developing specific criteria also pits the problem against observable and agreed upon metrics as opposed to a group of individuals/ leadership/ managers.  

C. Develop markers or signposts that signify desired outcomes relevant to the specific work being done.  Signposts let you know where you are (… next signpost up ahead, “Twilight Zone”).  For example, I work at a social service agency with a fairly large community mental health component that might find it useful to develop signposts related to the variables of content and time.  Signposts also need to work in concert with the established criteria per B above: Assuming specific established criteria are met, ~20% of staff may have the option to work in the office beginning August 1, 2020 continuing to offer remote tele-health services. Tele-health services will continue to be offered remotely (from home) and will be further reviewed by October 1, 2020. 

D. Address this time as a complex transition, with focus on managing the stages of transition (following Bridges).

  • Communicate regularly with staff.  
  • Provide information that addresses real needs in a calm and caring manner.  
  • Seek input and listen well.
  • Acknowledge that the framework and next steps are being developed in the midst of a crisis vs. re-building following a crisis.  As such, transition plans to re-open and return to work are being developed while squarely planted in the “Neutral Zone”, a place of uncertainty and some murkiness. Name it.
  • Manage the Neutral Zone, this period of ambiguity and uncertainty, with
    • Create space for feeling unsure…it’s normal.
    • Identify some meaningful short term goals.
    • Maintain supportive connections with colleagues.
    • Help each individual understand how they might positively contribute to the change moving forward and the importance of their role in the organization.
Bridges Transition Model | William Bridges Associates
Bridges’ Transition Model

E. Capitalize on the creativity of the time. It seems that the combination of novelty and necessity sparked some creative approaches to our work that we can capture and further continue moving forward.  As we approach the return to work conversations, make room to discuss the opportunities this time has also afforded.    

Reopening our workplaces is a critical challenge we need to address. Let’s do so by acknowledging the uncertainty that exists while also clarifying our collective purpose, with meaningful communication, and respect that people should be provided specific frameworks and options. This may offer us a chance to get it right.

A Declaration of Interdependence

I enjoyed a recent conversation with my friends and frequent collaborators, Darin Harris and Steve Davis (see www.journey of for a series of excellent courses on facilitation, leadership, and fully engaging groups to reach their potential). Darin brought along a brief video illustrating the interdependence of the economy, showing the simple (yet fundamental) lesson that when we make a purchase at the store, it is not merely an “independent economic decision,” but one reliant upon many others in a variety of places, who in turn depend upon us to make those purchases to keep them employed, healthy, and whole. Darin even commented that perhaps we should celebrate “Interdependence Day.” I totally agree.

The Myth of Independent Work

In our workplaces, we like to think of ourselves as independent workers, and most compensation systems reward us (or not) based upon individual performance. Managers do performance reviews one by one, even in situations where we recognize that those individual contributions rely upon a supply chain of talent to get the job done. We may even compare ourselves to one another and have feelings regarding whose work is recognized, whose is overlooked, whose retention is prized, and whose efforts are “essential” in various ways to the organization. Personally, I feel that I am highly independent in my approach to work, and I like to focus on my personal skills and knowledge as being important to the ultimate outcome of my efforts.

Certainly, our individual efforts are important, but we are products of a myth regarding our independence within the workplace and the economic system. It is an illusion that we passively accept, as the framing of such reward systems is actually a result of our hierachical, bureaucratic ways of organizing our efforts: Our work is actually quite interdependent, where there is a mutually reliant network of workers whose contributions are all essential to the final product or service being offered. We notice this, to be sure, and may even sing platitudes to such relationships, but we still accept the initial underlying assumptions that drive our behaviors.

We are also fond of saying we have “work teams,” but we often use this term euphemistically. Teams are truly interdependent entities. While some groups call themselves teams, they are actually composed of members who work very independent or one another, barely communicating or coordinating with one another, and where their work products are evaluated separately and individually. Other groups are characterized by hierarchy and dependent relationships; these are not truly teams; they exist in service to the leader’s priorities (it’s “Jim’s Team” or “ABC Leadership Team”). Success is measured in terms of how well the group advances the leader’s agenda, which is often externally defined and assessed, and where the group’s power is defined in relationship to the hierarchy and bureaucracy.

In contrast, true teams are composed of interdependent members, where their full skills and talents are aligned in service to a shared mission to which they are fully committed, and where their success is evaluated collectively. In my work over the years with businesses, public agencies, and community groups, I’ve tried to help them sort out the qualities of effective teams that are necessary in order to forge these interdependent relationships. And it has often been a key moment of insight in this process when groups come to grips with their shared identity: Are they truly teams? Do they really aspire to be interdependent? If not, what is their nature and how well does it achieve their collective vision of who they seek to be?

In my mind, all businesses and organizations need to have these conversations if they are going to survive and thrive in this uniquely challenging time. They need to be resilient, adaptable, and nimble to notice how to use their shared talents to respond to the unique challenges of the moment. As discussed in What Matters at Work, the time has come to create “next level organizations” (as Laloux calls them in Reinventing Organizations), where the people, processes, and structures of the organization are aligned to facilitate interdependent relationships in service to a greater good. The current economic system largely fails to properly capture the value and power of such arrangements, failing to transcend our individual contributions in any sustained and meaningful way. It also fails to account for the genuine role of “public goods” in the economy, which would be more fully realized once we accept the premise that our higher nature is one of Interdependence, rather than Independence.

A Declaration of Interdependence: What Type of Society do we Seek to Become?

For those of us living in the US and Canada, this is a week of national identity and a celebration of Independence. Yes, we celebrate the freedoms to choose our life paths (though with widely varying privileges to do so), to earn a living and to express ourselves as fundamental rights (again, this varies widely in both countries). But is this what we should be seeking as the greatest expression of who we are and should be as a society? I suggest that we should celebrate and aspire to a Declaration of Interdependence. We hold these truths to be critically important (if not self-evident):

  1. That all people, animal and plant species, and other life forms are mutually reliant upon one another on this planet, and that we as People of Earth are uniquely responsible to the sustainability and healthy expression of Life;
  2. That all people, as guardians of this precious planet and it’s fragile resources, are dedicated to its protection in ways that further its diversity and viability so future generations may benefit from its bounty;
  3. That we, the current generation, devote ourselves to creating social, political, economic, and spiritual institutions that recognize the paramount nature of Interdependence and commit our lives in This Time to fundamental reforms of current institutions towards that end;
  4. That we use the opportunity of This Moment to engage in deep examination, reflection, and actions that address fundamental, systemic deficiencies in our current societies to redress those factors that discriminate, oppress, and suppress the opportunities for all to participate fully in determining the nature and direction of our societies.

There is more to declare, I expect, but first we must accept these core principles, listen fully to one another regarding how we experience our lives together, and then determine where we each have power, influence, and Will to get things done. But we have to start somewhere, and this seems like a good place to begin at this time of national celebration. There is a lot to do.


This excerpt from What Matters at Work seems to add nicely to previous discussions about conflict, collaborative negotiation, and decision-making. I hope you find it useful to read — then give it a try!

A key challenge occurs when we are invited to engage in longer planning, policy-making, or conflict negotiation processes without being adequately prepared to do so. One important contribution that you can make as a member of a group considering such efforts is to help group members first clarify What Matters, by identifying those things that reflect their values, Intentions, and expectations of one another in their work together. A simple process that we have utilized with great success is the “Outcomes Identification Exercise.” I initially came across a variant of this activity in the Pfeiffer group facilitation Annual in 1987, and we have adapted it to work with dozens of work units, community groups, and leadership teams preparing for strategic planning. 

It is often useful at times of conflict and struggle, where there is a desire to move forward with planning or change efforts that have been stymied by relationships that have run aground. By clarifying the desired outcomes each participant seeks from work, and then noticing and affirming ways current efforts contribute to such intentions, members begin to learn (or re-learn) things about one another that can transform their energy and commitment. Once again, by focusing on strengths and assets within the group, the stage is set for important work that has otherwise eluded them. 

Process Overview

(Note: While this is primarily designed for a group sitting together in the same room, it is easily adapted to a virtual platform that allows for small group breakout discussions)

Facilitator’s Opening Statement: 

“A key challenge facing people who need to work through conflicts together is a lack of clarity about what they need. Their expectations regarding how those needs are met, and the relative priority of these expectations, is at the heart of this exercise. By clarifying desired outcomes from their work together, participants can begin to build an agenda that addresses those needs in practice.”

Step 1: Silent Brainstorming 

Individually, each participant should ‘brainstorm’ a list of responses to the following question: “What outcomes do I desire from my workplace?” 

An alternative question may be: “What expectations do I have from my work with my co-workers?” 

Take 5 minutes of quiet time to write down as many answers as possible to the focus question.

Step 2: Nominal Group Sharing

Going around the circle, each group* member should identify one desired outcome to share with others. The facilitator should record these responses on flip chart paper. Go around the circle a couple of times… if a ‘desired outcome’ has been previously stated, participants are encouraged to identify other items from their personal lists. People may “pass,” if preferred. After completing 2-3 turns around the group, the facilitator should ask members to review the flip chart list and identify any other items from their personal lists that they now feel are important to add to the group list.

*At the end of this step, the group’s list should contain 12-15 items. This assumes 5-7 members per group; if working with a larger group, it is advisable to break into subgroups.

Step 3: Hear What Has Been Noticed

Elicit feedback from group members regarding the characteristics of the desired outcomes they now observe. Ask them (if not otherwise noted) to notice the relatively significant role of procedural and relational needs (See Lesson 21) identified in these lists. [If you have a few sub-groups, it may be helpful to have people ‘wander around’ and view the other lists before making these comments.]

Step 4: Affirm What Matters

Ask each person to reflect upon the group list that has been generated, as well as their personal lists. Then ask each group member to take 3 minutes to compose two statements:

   A: “One desired outcome I am working to achieve is _____________.”
This is very important to our work group because _____________.”

   B: “I know that (someone else in the group or work team) is working to achieve (another desired outcome). This is very important to our work group because _____________.” 

Encourage group members to elaborate fully with these statements. Then, when all are ready, have people share them with one another, each in turn around the table.

*Again, small groups may be desirable. However, there is tremendous power in the experience of hearing people share these statements within the larger group. The facilitator should determine which approach is best in this situation. 

Step 5: From Ideas to Action(Optional

Building an action agenda often flows from the listing of desired outcomes in Step 3. You may return to this list and ask participants to identify [with check marks or colored dots] the “top 3” items on the collective list that should now be acted upon by the group. After people are polled in this manner, the group should identify those priority items that now appear to be meaningful and actionable for the group, and set aside time to address those items in the best possible way.

NOTE: Since this exercise may be used as a training exercise, moving ahead to problem-solving may not be appropriate within this meeting. On other occasions, however, it is a natural next step.

Challenge: Use the “Outcomes Identification Exercise

WHO: Solo/Group        

WHY: To apply this process to a meaningful issue. 


Step 1: Identify a group of colleagues that wants (or needs) to engage in a meaningful problem-solving process. This may be due to workplace challenges or difficulties, or it may come from a genuinely positive desire to improve their work together. Set aside 90m for this conversation and facilitate the steps of the process outlined above – you can do this!

Step 2: Follow the steps outlined above.  

Step 3: Later, (a) journal your insights and questions, then (b) discuss with a Coach or Mentor (perhaps someone engaging in this Journey with you) the power of the process and the results of the experience, and (c) reflect upon your own Values and Intentions and how they align with doing this work for you. 

“Jammin”: Fast-Paced Idea-Generation in a Playful Space

I love “Jammin.” To me, it’s far more than a facilitation tool or a cool group activity. It’s an example of what can emerge from truly playful collaboration in a Community of Practice (or in any work environment that promotes flexible, creative thinking). Here’s the back story: 

I have previously written about UW-MANIAC, the Madison Area Network for Innovation and Collaboration. One morning, I received an email from my friend, Darin Eich, who was on layover in Europe after doing some consulting. He had witnessed a neat idea-generation, consulting process in San Francisco that he was now mulling further, and he wondered if we could convene a meeting of the MANIAC Design Team to discuss it. He would be back in Madison by 3pm that afternoon – might we pull whoever could make it together to talk over coffee? I wrote back that I could meet him and I’d put out the word to the others, and we gathered at the Lakeside Coffee House later that afternoon. Though Darin was tired after traveling, he enthusiastically shared his idea: Let’s do some fast-paced “speed dating” for ideas that could foster innovation. We all added our own ingredients and in the end came up with “Jammin,” as well as a more deliberative companion called, “Studio Time” that we would pilot two weeks later. We promoted the session to the UW-MANIAC network and 25 people showed up for the first Jammin’ session.

From those half-baked beginnings, there have been dozens of “Jammin” sessions involving a few thousand people. It has been used at conferences, orientations for new faculty, and as the innovation incubator for which it was initially intended. “Studio Time” was a short-lived experiment, though the more deliberative aspect of such an offering promoted deepening ideas, so innovations prompted at a “Jammin” session could be more fully developed and planned. While there are variants on the theme, here is the core process:

  1. “Play Before Work”:  Form a circle for quick introductions. In rapid-fire fashion, introduce yourself and identify one thing you really enjoy for fun. This light introduction gets people used to the pace of the session. (Variant: add an Improv, “Yes, And…”) structure to the question if it is a small group of people familiar to one another, such as a work team) (<10m)
  2. “Create Your Elevator Speech”: What is the issue for which you seek advice? Prepare to share it concisely in one minute, as if you met the person on an elevator. (<5m)
  3. “Jammin” Triads”: In groups of three, each person takes <1m to share the Elevator Speech, followed by 2m to seek consultation and advice from the other two people. Each member of the triad takes a turn (~10m). 
  4. “Shuffle to a New Consultation”: We re-sort everyone so they get a second round of consultations with new people. We actually accelerate the time frame, allowing 2m per person. (total time = 6m) This step can be repeated a 3rd time. 
  5. “Synthesis/ Check Out”: Take a few minutes to sort through ideas you may have gained. What did you learn about your idea that improves it? What resources were identified that you can check into later? In the larger group, there is a brief “check out” around the circle. 

That’s it. The basic “Jammin” format takes less than an hour. In larger groups, we have had people seated at “Home Tables” where they can develop the initial “Elevator Speech” and try it out before going into the “Jammin” rounds. They return to the “nest” for the final synthesis and check out. We have also done a variation where participants form two concentric circles and are paired off for the consultations, moving to their left each round to meet 4-5 people. It all works…

“Jammin” in Action

Why does “Jammin” matter? Frequently in our organizations, we stop innovative opportunities by overthinking the process. We inhibit ourselves by expecting everything to be carefully planned before sharing our initial ideas, thus stifling the associative thinking that can result from saying things aloud and getting others to build on the first iteration. We need to “ideate” — what many of us naturally call “brainstorming” — and then we need to prototype some of the promising options that emerge. We also need to remain in the divergent phase a bit longer so we can entertain thoughts that are truly “outside the box” before moving towards convergence and final decisions. “Jammin” lets us do these things energetically, efficiently, and with purpose.

Let’s take a moment to return to the idea of “Studio Time,” which didn’t continue beyond the initial trials of Jammin’ sessions. I remain a believer in the intention of Studio Time: We need spaces to safely marinate ideas, talk about them with trusted friends and colleagues, and get others’ perspectives on how they land in the world. All too often, we lack that in our own departments or even our companies. But thinking more about Communities of Practice (as we discussed two weeks ago) and how they support learning, perhaps this is where Studio Time has its greatest potential. I also think the GROW Model of peer coaching that was presented in What Matters at Work offers an easy way for people to gather in a Studio space to offer that support and feedback… let’s just keep marinating here and see what might be promising. 

Exercise: Facilitate a “Jammin” Session

Try it out! Gather a group of at least a dozen people, more if you have the opportunity. Then follow the steps outlined above. The process can be readily adapted to online meetings, just using the breakout room capacities of the platform. You can reinforce the learning with a virtual whiteboard, as well, so people can share their insights in real time, then do a “Gallery Walk” check out that identifies those key ideas they’ve noticed. It’s fast-paced, energizing, and worthwhile. Let me know what you think.

~ Harry

Facing this Overwhelming Moment

It’s hard to know where to begin, it feels so overwhelming:

A global pandemic has infected 6.5 million people across the world and shows no signs of abating as it now attacks some of the poorest countries on Earth. COVID-19 has killed nearly 400,000 people including an unfathomable 108,000 in the US, the wealthiest nation on earth, all in less than six months;

Hundreds of millions across the world are sinking deeper into poverty as unemployment escalates, even in the strongest economies on the planet, with frightening growth of food insecurity and wealth disparities, both in the developing world and in wealthy nations;

Wars, political oppression, and the dangers facing refugees were already at ominous levels even before the COVID-19 reality deepened their despair. But situations across the world threaten to escalate these challenges (look at Bangladesh, Syria, and Hong Kong, for example) and exacerbate political instability;

The brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked civil unrest across the US and protests around the world. His death has served as a tipping point for the expression of pent up anger and despair, both by black Americans and by tens of thousands of others seeking significant reforms in police behavior and criminal justice, as well as addressing other core issues of racial and ethnic inequality.

The President of the US responds to all of these crises with self-absorbed delusions of his skills, autocratic escalation of the conflicts, and inept, incompetent leadership enabled by meek sycophants; this combination worsens so many of these challenges and threatens those institutions available to address them. Trump’s inability and unwillingness to express empathy or to summon any effort to bring people together has now once again laid bare — as if it still needed to be demonstrated — the bankruptcy of his pledge to serve the people of the United States and, by its role, the leadership of the free world.

The world is in an unprecedented place

What do we do with such a moment? What is possible as a leader in the face of such an overwhelming constellation of factors? What might any of us do, beyond deciding whether to protest in the streets to show our outrage or otherwise demonstrate support to those who do so in peace? “I am just one person,” I say to myself. But, as one connected to so many others, I have an opportunity and responsibility to offer what I am able to share. We already know so much of the answer, if we look inside our hearts and use our intelligence in service to our values:

George Floyd called with his final words, “I Can’t Breathe!” We who are still fortunate to breathe must do so — deeply — and listen fully and patiently to one another. We must wade into the difficult conversations, uncomfortable though they may be, and try to understand the larger stories here. We must engage in a range of spaces, both familiar and new, including a range of voices that can inform our prior assumptions about what is Truth and what are important ways to improve the world.

“Get your knee off our necks,” is a description of the black experience in America (with much justifiable concern here in Canada and elsewhere). It is much more than a phrase: It is a deep expression of daily experience, one that may only mildly intersect with my own. I need to understand the stories that are constant in the lives of those who live in constant danger, whether as people of color, or those facing discrimination as LGBTQ, as persons with disabilities, as those facing ethnic and religious discrimination. Those with power and privilege have an obligation to hear these stories and to act responsibly based upon what is learned. This is not a new lesson. It is merely a lesson amplified in this overwhelming moment.

What is most meaningful in this phrase to those facing such racism? How might those of more privileged backgrounds understand it in a valuable and valued way? The racial injustices awakened in this moment are deep-seeded and complex, and our complicity in their perpetuation invites us all to examine choices in our lives we may prefer not to explore. But they are at the heart of so much polarization that separates us from one another and which reflects the vast differences in our experiences, and cannot be ignored.

This is a political moment, to be sure, but it is also a moment to engage in each sphere of our society: These conversations must happen in our workplaces, making space for staff to examine policies and practices that systematically exclude and harm people of color, as well as other marginalized groups — whether by intention or not — and understand one another’s experiences in a fragmented and polarized society. These conversations must happen in our communities, examining the ways long-standing disparities are causing disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color, as well as to understand the real costs and impacts of the economic upheaval that cuts across society. And these conversations must happen in our families, so we may understand one another’s experiences, fears, hopes, and priorities. To reinforce the key point: This is a time to deeply listen to one another, using the breath we are fortunate to possess in service to that conversation

But there must also be concrete actions that truly make a difference in our organizations, with serious and sustained follow-through. We must reexamine our Values and Intentions, a reaffirmation of What Matters, and a commitment to practices that align with what we learn as a result. In our workplaces, this may well mean discomfort and upheaval: Well, that upheaval is already occurring — What better opportunity is there for us to reinvent our ways of working together? The greater context of our work is forever changed. Many of our customers and clients now have vastly changed their needs and priorities these past few months, haven’t they? The opportunity for innovation and experimentation is greater in such times, if we dare to grasp it

Organizations have an opportunity to review the entire terrain of communication, decision-making, conflict resolution, and other processes and work to promote authentic collaboration, genuine inclusion, and sustained day-to-day respect. New project teams can be created (or existing ones can be repurposed) to engage in such work, and they need to pull together disparate threads to build coherent, integrated policies and programs. This is far greater than considering, “Do we continue to work remotely?” This is an opportunity to thoroughly examination of who we are, how we work, and how we serve a greater purpose. 

While going through this reinvention, we must never lose sight of the distress of the present moment: Many have lost jobs and are living at the edge of their resources. Many have lost family members to the pandemic or its related fallout, often isolated from loved ones and unable to grieve properly. Many of us face daily dangers going to work, whether at health care settings, serving first responder roles, or working in warehouses and grocery stores. Many of us have lost a life we took for granted only a few months ago, connecting with friends, family, colleagues, and clients in ways that are now unsafe to do. All of us face continuous stress factors that have come from separation from families and friends, protection of our health, and uncertainties around when this health crisis may end. 

We must seek ways to connect and reflect, then to develop new ways of working together, and integrating loose threads into the whole cloth of innovation. As discussed in last week’s post, Communities of Practice can serve as critical spaces for such experimentation, as they are safe spaces that facilitate sharing across organizations and perspectives. CoP’s are uniquely positioned to serve such a learning purpose during this pandemic. When we are able to process our sense of loss, uncertainty, and anger, we can then open ourselves to embrace the fragility of this moment and make critical connections. We are not alone

There are other strategies to be sure. As leaders, we must listen to those we serve and understand how best to lead them as a result. If we approach this overwhelming situation with compassion, generosity, humility, and integrity, we can get through this and emerge better as a result. Facing this overwhelming moment can be frightening, but if we may transform it into a chance to breathe fully in this present moment together, this crisis may become a gift. 

Let us pray we have the wisdom to do so.