What’s going on?

It’s fair to say that the last year and a half have been pretty rubbish for everyone. Whatever your circumstances, you’ll have had some aspect of your life changed and, as is the nature of time, you’ll never be able to get it back. But of course the “rubbishness” of the last year has also been different for different people, some of us will have been seriously ill, some of us will have lost loved ones, some of us will have experienced extreme financial pressures and other will have lost their homes and/or their jobs.

From an intellectual, rational perspective we can make comparative assessments of the impact. It is probably something we can all agree on that losing your life partner is more impactful than having to work from home for a year. From an emotional and psychological perspective though, it is harder to start to make relative assessments of the impact on one person compared to another.

When we go through a collective moment like this, the danger is that we apply that rational assessment to belittle the emotional impact, it manifests itself when we say, “at least you’re healthy and well” or, “well you still have a lot to be grateful for”. By applying our logical assessment of others emotional impact we are effectively negating their reality, we are choosing not to listen to how that person is feeling and instead telling them how they should feel.

There’s a brilliant explanation of this in the wonderful book, “It’s ok that you’re not ok” by Megan Devine which was recommended to me when I was going through my own grief a few years ago. Devine wonderfully articulates the impact of people rationalising away other people’s feelings during bereavement by drawing from their own experience, “you’re still young” and, “you’ll move on eventually”. Our awkwardness or unwillingness to exist in the moment of someone else’s emotions and our desire to fix it with rationality.

Whilst bereavement and the pandemic are at the more extreme end of human experiences, the same thing happens each and every day as we go about our work,

“Everyone’s busy, that’s just how it is”

“Well at least you’ve got a job”

“There’s millions of people without a job”

I’m not, of course, saying that sometimes some relativity and structure can’t help people when they’re distressed, but it starts by taking time to understand what’s going on for them, what’s happening in their life and what support, or help (if any) they need, rather than trying to fix or rationalise their situation for them without their permission.

When there is so much pain, anxiety and fear going on, we can all become a little tired and even desensitised to the world around us – that’s part of our own self protection. But to get out the other side of this, in our homes, workplaces and communities, we’re going to have to start by acknowledging how those that are around us really feel. That’s the work that needs to be done.

If you’ve got three minutes to spare, I’d recommend you take time to watch this.

Will we remember to care?

Last week I was having a conversation with a member of my team. Reminiscing that when I started in HR as a Personnel Officer I used to know all the colleagues absent with long term sickness, what they were off with and when they were having any treatments. I’d diarise (paper version) to speak with them on a regular basis just to check in. I wouldn’t pass the test as strategic HR these days, but there was something utterly right about it nonetheless.

As we start to emerge from the current situation, we can reflect on what we’ve learnt in organisations about colleague’s lives, things that we probably didn’t know about and had left to line managers. My team have personally contacted by phone over 900 colleagues who registered that they either have, or live with someone with, a vulnerability – to agree a personal care plan. The process has been both humbling and reassuring. It goes without saying that has received universal gratitude from the colleagues receiving the call, but it has also been a moment of pride for the HR colleagues involved.

It might just be a “big organisation” thing, prone to the application of some sort of bastardisation of the much loathed Ulrich model (yes Dave, I know you were misunderstood), where employee wellbeing is pushed to line managers and shared service centres. But I do wonder whether we can learn something from this about what employees really want from their HR departments and teams?

My guess is that it isn’t another change or development to the appraisal process, a new recruitment methodology or a self service portal. More likely a group of people who know them, understand their needs and can support them through work, whatever challenge they’re facing. Let’s not forget the the very origins of HR we practice lies in workplace welfare teams.

Sexy? Maybe not. Strategic? Probably more so than many activities that we do. Feeling safe, cared for and known is more likely to drive productivity than the new expensive leadership course you’ve been busy designing. It doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t do all these other things too. But let us not forget what is at the very core of our being and hope that this current situation brings it back to the fore.

What next?

It was noticeable last week that the conversations across organisations and networks started to shift from how we “endure/survive” the current situation to how we “recover” (with no intention to be insensitive through language). Shaped in the context of the debate about  the possible lifting of restrictions,

Understandably, we focus on the short term. What will social distancing mean for our organisations? Will there be different expectations on work spaces? How will people feel about travelling on public transport? What will we do about childcare and schools? Can we afford the current workforce?

And whilst we will need to answer all of these questions, whilst we will need to understand the practical implications. At the same time, there are perhaps more serious, longer term considerations that will come to test us.

The economic impact of the virus will be long term, not just for the organisations that have had to close their doors, lay off their workers or close down. But in the money that Government has invested to respond to the current situation. A generation could be set back by the financial burden, as we saw in the financial crisis.

And whilst we can’t definitively know, opinions on life, society and the economy will also be shaped by the experience we are having. There will be the demand for change, a level of recrimination, but hopefully too things that we have observed and experienced that will act as a future force for good.

As I’ve said multiple times, organisations are in effect a microcosm of society, we exist in a bubble at our peril. The debate will ultimately involve us having to explore our social purpose, consider issues of equity and fairness, challenge us on the treatment of all our stakeholder groups and in some cases require fundamental change and adaptation.

In many ways, the challenge for leaders is far from coming to an end, and not just because restrictions will go on for some time,  it is just starting. The virus and our ability to respond and manage it is one thing, the likely change it drives in society will raise a whole other series of fundamental, ethical and structural challenges.