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COVID-19 learning & connection opportunities: week of May 25, 2020

Feeling Unessential?

Posted on April 3, 2020


This week’s Morning Buzz is by Susan Barkman, Council/Mayor Management Analyst for Aurora, Colorado. Connect on Twitter and Linkedin.


  • What are am I watching: Life Below Zero
  • How am I am doing: ok, but there are a lot of ups and downs
  • My favorite COVID inspired programs: Broomfield’s Bridge the Gap, and weekly COVID Town Halls

Last week in the ELGL webinar on local water systems, who is defined as essential staff got brought up and George Hawkins was talking about having the hard conversations about who was really needed on site.

After the webinar, I came across Kendra’s fantastic tweet about the essential label not defining the value of our work or the value a person as an employee.

 The reality of being an essential employee is that different people are essential under different types of emergencies.  The impacts of a big snowstorm generally don’t have the long-term financial impacts that we are worried about with COVID, which means our finance folks aren’t as essential to the response of a snowstorm.

The idea of who is essential and who isn’t kind of stuck with me, and it was something I was thinking about as I thought about all of the possible contingencies for my office to continue operating through this.

As our response to COVID has evolved, I’m sure there have been a lot of staff have been concerned about their future, and if they will have a job to come back to.  A lot of staff members want to help and be there to support our residents. So how can we help have a role while respecting the stay at home orders, the different realities of life at home for everyone and the individual desire and ability to help.

First, give them something to do.  If you are paying people to stay home without work, why not give them some work or let them do professional development.  Here are four things people can do from home:

  • Professional development – there are tons of free resources and depending on your city if you have online professional development content that they can access let them do it! If you have a book club take it virtual!
  • Update procedure books and other helpful resources (let’s be honest, none of us have a pandemic operations section)
  • Let them be creative on how they contribute, virtual fitness classes, and story times came from someone! See what they can do.
  • Let those who can help, help elsewhere if possible. If you have opened a call center think about how you can train them, and have staff help there.  My local foodbank usually runs with the help of elderly volunteers, so right now they need a lot of new volunteers who are less at risk to help keep things going.

Second, listen to the concerns of your staff and be honest with them that we may not have the answer to the question.  This is a very fluid situation and if you think about where we were one month ago, what seemed impossible, or unlikely are many of the solutions we have come around to.

Things that existed last week, do not exist this week and new things will exist next week.  Right now the only thing we can promise is communication as the situation evolves.

Third, check in on them.  Everyone is dealing with high levels of prolonged stress and making big adjustments on every front of their lives. You likely have someone on your staff in just about every living situation: domestic violence, substance abuse, balancing homeschooling kids, caring for elderly parents, or living alone.

All of these things are creating new norms, and we all have different ways of responding.  As supervisors, managers, and mentors we can show we care by checking in on them to ensure they are ok, connect them to resources.

Fourth, recognize that our business decisions have very real and very personal impacts to our staff.  If you have to lay people off or do furloughs, help them understand the resources you can offer, and the resources that they are available in their community.

Be prepared to revisit things with them even though the outcome is the same.  Often there is a certain amount of shock when these things happen, and in that shock they might be telling you they understand without being able to process the impacts in an instant.  Give them some time and make sure they have the information they need to move forward.

Above all, just remind people that an essential label doesn’t define us, it doesn’t change the important work we do, or our value as an employee.

There are so many things we can’t control right now, but we can control our reaction, and use the  opportunity to be innovative and use the resources we have to be strategic and come out of this ahead of where we are today.

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