What I’ve Learned About the Workplace After a Month Social Distancing

Posted on April 27, 2020

lessons learned magnifying glass

By Brandi Leos, City of Tigard (LinkedIn; Twitter)

It’s been about a month since our governor issued a stay at home order for our state. A lot has happened in this month (feels like about three months).  As many of you know, I work in the HR office for a medium size city in Oregon. We have about 350 employees. We sent all the employees we could home with limited staff onsite to optimize social distancing. I’m learning a lot about human behavior. Here are ten lessons I’ve learned during social distancing in the workplace:

  1. It’s hard to temporarily layoff the on-call staff. Some have been dedicated public servants in this role for years and some had started in the few weeks before the shutdown. In either case, it was difficult to tell them we wouldn’t be able to support programs in the library or recreation – both high public contact roles – for the foreseeable future. When this all started, we thought it might a month or two, now I am wondering what recreation or library services look like in post-shutdown, pre-vaccine world.
  2. The jealousy reaction rears its head in a variety of ways. Some people are jealous of those who can work from home, some are jealous of those who get to work in the office. This one cuts both ways and I have noticed that people in general have a hard time when the grass is greener. From talking to a variety of folks, I think it’s just a matter losing the freedom of choice. The people who have been sent home to work, would love a day in the office and the people who can’t work from home just want to give it a try.
  3. There is a strong parent/non-parent divide. My kids are nearly grown and grown but I remember what it’s like to have young kids and I cannot even imagine what parents are going through trying to homeschool kids while working at home, as well. What a nightmare.  I was relieved when the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act was implemented giving parents 10 weeks of protected leave paid at two-thirds. In my city, this means parents need only put in about 14 hours per week (more if they can/want to) to earn a full paycheck. As a supervisor, I was glad to inform staff that only a few hours per day was needed to ensure full pay.
  4. We can all spare a little grace. Got a co-worker who is not “pulling their weight”? Try asking about what’s going on in their world. Everyone needs a little something different during this time and we could all stand to give and receive a little kindness. Our former Police Chief always said, “seek first to clarify.” I take this to mean we should all try to understand why someone might do or need something; assume positive intent; don’t accuse before asking.
  5. Equity and equality are not the same thing. I have heard from many people that they want to be treated the same as everyone else. However, all jobs are different and every personal situation is different. What I need and what you need are not the same thing. Equality is giving everyone the same thing. Equity is giving everyone what they need. I need to work from home in the mornings and come to the office in the afternoon. My coworker needs to work in the office all day on Thursday, another needs to work only from home. It’s okay that we don’t get the same thing, as long as our needs are being met. People with small kids need to be able to tend to them while some of us may need to work longer hours to keep up with the work demands. We’re all in this together.
  6. We still need human interaction. I have found that during this time of social distancing and a lot of people working from home, it is hard to maintain those work relationships built from seeing people in the halls or checking in on various things. Give your people a call – they want to talk! Every couple of days I like to call one of my colleagues/work friends to check in, just like I would if we were all in the office. Ask how they are doing, talk about non-work things, and see if there is something they could use your help with. I have found these calls or texts can me a day-changer for me and I hope they are for the people on the other end. The collaboration tools we use allow for quick video chats and that is my new favorite feature.
  7. Technology is King. I have never seen an organization adopt new tech so fast. We were on the right track to begin with and had launched virtual desktops a while back. We started our Office 365 transition in the past 12 months. Suddenly, we’re all using SharePoint and Teams to communicate, and I think our workplace will be forever changed. Those resistant to new tech are adopting a whole lot quicker than ever imagined. This is a silver lining, for sure.
  8. Supervisors: Check in with your employees; even the ones who are self-starters and you’re not worried about. They need to know you care and they want that daily interaction. If you would normally stop at someone’s desk in the morning to say hello, do the same now with a quick call, text, or email. An employee should never go a full day without contact from the supervisor.
  9. Exercise kindness. Thank somebody (coworker, Amazon driver, Grubhub dude, neighbor, whomever). Reach out to your first responders and your emergency operations staff. These people are giving everything they have and cannot work from home. Reach out to that mom you work with and just listen – side note: I once thought I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom and I lasted six months, without trying to also work; I can’t even imaging being a stay-at-home mom with a job to boot.
  10. Enact self-care. This looks different for everyone, so try something like exercise, meditation, getting organized, cleaning out your email inbox, anything. Take the time in this moment to do something for yourself. This weekend, my favorite brewery was open from 4-7 for growler fills. I had honestly forgotten how good a fresh beer was. For me, it was going for a walk and getting some fresh beer to take home.

What has been the biggest lesson you have learned while social distancing in the workplace?

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