By: Marya Doerfel, Professor of Communication and Director of the NetSCI Research Lab at Rutgers University
People are resilient because, in part, they continue to work. In a way, the responsibilities they have at work “pull them through” the crisis. Likewise, by working, businesses and organizations are resilient because the workers, by continuing to do their jobs, “push them through” the disruption. And in turn, when organizations can continue to be productive, they facilitate community resilience.
Yet this pressure to continue working can be emotionally and physically exhausting.
In my research about organizational communication and the aftermath of disasters, I have seen a lot of compassion for employees on the part of business owners and organizational leaders. They know they need you! But excellent leaders* also recognize that business is not “as usual” so managing people can be simultaneously their source for a sense of purpose and their biggest stress.
After disasters, I have observed that the best leaders
- work to close ranks,
- support workers who may not have the capacity to keep going,
- have humility in knowing they must take advice and hear their workers
- acknowledge that productivity is going to be lower
- offer up official ways the organization will be supportive
- provide communication and information tools to coordinate
- have short term tasks while thinking about a long term, albeit adaptable, vision
- may not have financial resources in their pocket, but they have confidence that those resources will come back**
Employees also take up extra work or develop creative solutions to push along the ability for work to continue. In post-disaster research, I have seen some common behaviors of employees who recognize the importance of sustaining work functions (they need their jobs!).
The most proactive employees:
- rely on organizational structures, like policy and their official job descriptions, to carry on work even if coordinating with others is difficult to do (in disasters, communication technologies may be unreliable or fail; in our current state, people may have the technology, but will not be able to work at the same pace or at the same time due to constraints at home)
- can be very resourceful and improvisational when it comes to having to work things out on their own as long as this is a normal part of the organizational culture and leadership has demonstrated support and confidence in employee autonomy and decision making. YET:
if a culture of mutual trust and support between employees and their supervisors is anemic or absent, there is nothing like a shared calamity to bring people together and start anew. Classic game theory suggests that relationship repair and building trust can start with simple acts of faith. Approach these new circumstances with humility and genuine concern for employees and coworkers. In the post disaster success-stories I have observed, shared calamity becomes an opportunity to transform antagonistic relationships (even among competitors) to mutually supportive ones.
- Are aware of colleagues’ skillsets and professional responsibilities, tacitly presuming that those employees will do their work. In turn, each employee takes up their usual responsibilities as best they can
- care about their peers, stay in touch, and help them
To be clear, this dynamic of push-pull relationships between employees and employers underscore the privilege of being employed. During this health pandemic, estimates suggest up to 3 million layoffs will happen by summer 2020 (Casselman, Maheshwari, & Yaffe-Bellany, 2020).
Regardless, in this information age, many workplaces have shifted to remote telecommuting.
If you’re an employer:
- Consider what your employees are going through now and how you can reassure them that you see the uniqueness of these circumstances.
- Ask yourself: are you fairly compensating your employees? Fair and just pay *is* a motivator and is morally the right thing to do.
- Prioritize what functions are critical and what functions help people feel a sense of meaningful work. The two may not appear to be equally essential to the organization’s survival, but they are.
- Turn to your external partners! If you can, meet virtually with your different partners and stakeholders. See how they are doing. Those conversations may lead to you discovering joint projects that are uniquely suited to these circumstances.
As an employee, communicating at work during this time involves:
- Ongoing communication with your employer. Make sure your employer knows how your home circumstances are changing (e.g., children at home and are having to “homeschool” them (I know I am!); family who need care because home health workers or other supporters are not able to work, etc.*.
- Aligning the communication technology to the task/problem. Need to deal with a more complex work task? Get on the phone or use a video conferencing tool so you can nuance the conversation with nonverbal communication. Likewise:
- Negotiating with your boss about when you will work because of your own unique circumstances (e.g., you have kids or are a primary care provider to a family member). Try to use video conference! Just sending an email or IMing that you’ll “deal” later with a request your boss has made may communicate a different message.
- Is the email you’re writing getting to be a long and an involved essay (like this one!)?
- If the other person is available, pick up the phone, instead.
- If the recipient(s) is/are not available, think like a journalist! What is the most important thing that needs to be said? Say that first. Use bullet points, bold fonts, or similar formatting that highlights key points (in all likelihood, people will be skimming and then if a point captures their attention, they will read the details).
- Communicate support upward. Yes, that’s right. Show empathy for what your supervisor is going through, too. Build a mutually supportive relationship.
- Think systemically. What other departments at work or systems in your business’ community are impacted by or impact what you do? Reach out to those partners, if only to be aware of their circumstances. Such conversations may be a source of social support but also may give insights about what issues you need to address or work on together.
A Word About the Privilege of Being Paid During This Time
Stories about industries in turmoil are starting to be told. The food and beverage industry is one obvious example. It’s not just the servers who are getting laid off, but the industry has major food companies that supply over a million restaurants in the US, alone. Such problems may lead to both large scale political action, but also need hyperlocal good-neighboring. So, if you are paid during this time, please consider paying it forward.
- Keep paying people who you usually employ for regular work, even if you can’t use their services during this time (e.g., yoga teachers, a regularly scheduled nanny, housekeepers, instrument teachers, hairstylists, etc.).
- When ordering takeout/delivery from your local restaurants, tip as if you are eating at one of their tables (many restaurants that don’t usually do delivery will likely adapt by using their waiters to deliver).
- Donations and philanthropy are more important than ever as a way to pool resources and help those in need through coordinated efforts. Rely on CharityWatch.org or other sources that assess nonprofits’ efficacy. Direct your donations to those organizations that do the most with their resources and designate the highest portion of their donations toward their mission-driven work versus too much directed toward the cost of running the organization.
There Is a Dark Side to Resilience
Resilience, by definition, is about mitigating interruption of the normal. As such, being resilient can be a form of denial about the circumstances surrounding you. Being resilient can also be anathema to change. This massive disruption may reveal things that *should* change and has revealed things that *must* change. Consider our current health system as a for-profit endeavor. Consider how our economy is largely dependent on consumerism. Consider how relying on technology to keep up during this time further amplifies differences in terms of privilege and vulnerability. The dark side of resilience warrants far more space, more experts to chime in, and its own forum where we can unpack these far reaching issues.
Hopefully having work will pull you along in a helpful way while your work pushes your organization through this turbulence. Hopefully this is a shorter, not longer-term situation.
*I realize not all people have open and accessible relationships with their bosses. If you’re in charge of others and feel this is stretching your skills or if you are an employee who isn’t sure how to communicate your circumstances, there are countless resources to help (podcasts, university professors, books, websites, professional magazines and associations, blogs, etc.).
** Trust that resources will come back raises whole new issues that are systemic, cutting across financial markets, political and governmental infrastructures, ideologies, hyperlocal economies, and entire industries. Circumstances outside of an employer’s control undermine employer confidence. The turbulence across systems points to the fact that this is an interdisciplinary problem where experts from other fields must be tapped (e.g., economics, psychology, political science, finance, social work, to name a few).
Casselman, Maheshwari, & Yaffe-Bellany, Layoffs are Just Starting, and the Forecasts are Bleak, New York Times, March 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/business/economy/coronavirus-layoffs.html