Zach is a bright middle-schooler who tends to rush through tests. His little brother is a hugger, especially when one more hug can delay math time.
I’ve never met them, but I’ve seen and heard them in action. Their dad is my boss, and these are the things we now know about one another, because it’s 2020.
As the pandemic squeezes life — work, family, school, health, service, faith, and play — into a smaller space, more of that life filters into every Zoom meeting. We meet pets, partners, children, roommates, and parents. We see old sweaters and new masks, good meals and bad days. By living our lives on a smaller stage, we fit more into the frame.
There is humanizing beauty when real life intrudes on the professional illusion. As the leader for Talent, Learning, and Culture at a national non-profit, I already knew that every employee’s life is rich, messy, and complicated with competing demands and goals that are never only professional. Even so, I have learned more about my colleagues and their families in the last eight months than in the previous 15 years of my career.
In the process, I have re-examined what it means for each of us to build a career and a life, with the hope that new paths emerge from the ashes of this terrible year.
Remember how fast it all changed?
I last boarded a plane on Wednesday, March 4. The flight was a commuter hopfrom our headquarters in DC to my home near Boston, with every seat filled. I had a window seat, airline cookies, and no sanitizer or mask in sight. I made it home in time for dinner and a movie with my husband and our two kids — just a typical work trip.
Five days later, I suspended all work-related travel and in-person gatherings for our 200 employees. Nine days after that, California issued the first state stay-at-home order.
In those last chaotic weeks of March, we asked our people what they needed to navigate whatever this was that we were facing. Staff named two immediate needs: childcare, and a place to work. Schools were closing without warning. So were offices, coffee shops, libraries, and other public spaces. We responded with a childcare subsidy, to help parents hire short-term, in-home childcare during the spring while they figured things out, and a home-office reimbursement, enough for a new chair and a modest desk — small material comforts for an uncomfortable new setting.
In June, our Black colleagues told us the murder of George Floyd–and too many others–by police compounded the trauma of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact in communities of color. We made space to listen. They shared powerful reflections, named their needs, and moved our organization to action. We prioritized mental health for our Black colleagues with group counseling sessions and additional paid time off for action, recovery, and self-care. Recognizing that demonstrations need partners in power to create change, we supported a successful fundraising campaign for Black political candidates. While we know that workplace supports cannot eliminate systemic racism or our colleagues’ pain, our work and learning continue.
By the summer, we knew we were in the pandemic for the long haul, and employees told us they needed, broadly, three things:
- Staff want an understanding human to help them figure out their stuff. A listening ear and thought partnership on how to navigate unprecedented challenges. We all need that, and it costs nothing but our time.
- People asked for connection and community. Working parents, who have not been alone — For. Even. Five. Minutes. — since Groundhog Day, haven’t experienced the intense isolation that defines the daily lives of millions of adults living alone. One antidote is to show up as leaders and people, to share more of ourselves, and to create intentional space for laughter, commiseration, and connection.
- Teams asked for help releasing the pressure that has been squeezing their lives from all sides. While much of 2020 is beyond our control, we identified concrete steps to reduce work stress without compromising our mission. People need space to check on their children, to get their work done, and to take care of themselves. We encouraged staff to cancel non-essential meetings, and we created meeting-free days, because flex time alone means little to an employee locked into nine hours of back-to-back meetings.
To be sure, we haven’t always gotten it right. Despite enthusiasm for the childcare subsidy, stay-at-home orders prevented most employees from using it. Employees told us that our listening was too passive for what the moment demanded, especially around issues of racial justice. Every day brings new challenges. And we keep learning–learning how to build a new workplace culture, learning how to fit our humanity in the frame.