For most businesses, the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic were a sprint. Digital transformation that would have taken years was completed in days, as vast swathes of the workforce began to work from home. Retailers and hospitality outlets switched to delivery-only models. In the U.K., HR professionals and business owners grappled with the complexities of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, enabling them to furlough staff rather than let them go, with the government paying 80% of the wage bill. In the U.S., Paycheck Protection Program loans meant to enable small businesses to keep workers on the payroll were challenging to navigate, if they were able to get the funds at all.
Several months later, it has become painfully, exhaustingly clear that what we thought was a sprint is, in fact, a marathon. The additional adrenaline rush of new ways of working is wearing off. We are fatigued. We are fed up. And it is starting to show.
In my role as senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, the U.K.-headquartered professional body for HR and people development, I speak with HR leaders in major organizations on a regular basis. This has only increased during the pandemic as people directors look for external support and peer connection.
Something that has raised its head in recent weeks through these conversations is what I think of as a “fracturing” of the workforce. Many organizations are considering how and when they can bring people back together physically. But the more challenging issue—one that can’t be solved with one-way walking systems and Perspex screens—is bringing people back together psychologically. Organizations of all sizes and across all sectors and regions have such a disparity of employee experiences of the pandemic that creating a sense of “oneness” is a formidable task.
“That sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ has long gone,” one chief people officer reflected recently. Another, rather gloomily, added: “The kindness has left the room.” It’s being replaced with resentment (Why am I putting myself in danger every day while my colleagues sit at home on full pay?) and anxiety (Am I going to lose my job?).
Schisms are appearing. Of course, some existed already between frontline and support or managerial staff and between low-paid and high-paid workers—but this crisis made things more visible and more profound. It has become a matter of life and death. Low-income workers (often in frontline jobs) and those in precarious work are far more likely to die from the coronavirus. We are all in this together—but some more so than others. If you’re a white-collar worker, you can work from home. If you’re a blue-collar worker, you can’t.
But beyond even that dichotomy, the average workforce will contain a vast spectrum of pandemic experiences. One organization might easily have:
- A single parent, working from home, trying to be productive while also attempting to homeschool
- A young professional in a house-share, balancing a laptop on their knees in bed and taking calls standing in the bath (the signal is best there for some reason)
- An executive who never really believed in this flexible working stuff, but who has had an epiphany working from their comfortable and well-equipped study
- Someone living alone, furloughed from their job for three long months now, isolated, disconnected, and anxious about how they’ll pay their rent if the money stops coming
- A frontline worker, traveling to work as normal each day, putting themselves at risk, day in, day out, while colleagues stay safe at home or are furloughed on full pay
This uniqueness of experience challenges the concept of fairness. How can you be fair and consistent when the spectrum of needs varies so dramatically? Should you even try?
Rather than rushing to prophesize about the future of work being entirely remote or pressuring people to return to work, business leaders instead need to recognize how individual our working experiences of the pandemic have been. And more than recognize, they need to care. As INSEAD management professor Gianpiero Petriglieri put it to me recently: “We need more humane leadership. We need leadership as care, with a bigger focus on community, connectivity, and bringing people together.”
Compassion and humanity will be key at all levels to knitting back together a psychologically fractured workforce. One CPO expressed despair that some of her frontline, low-paid workers were frustrated and resentful that furloughed colleagues were being paid in full. “How can they want their colleagues to not have enough money to live on?” she asked. The question for leaders then is as much about how to engender empathy as it is about what the new, post-COVID-19 strategy should be.
As human behavior is messy and unpredictable, there are no easy answers to solving this. Many organizations are considering extra recognition for frontline workers, whether that’s cash, time off, or other perks. But the intangible is important too. Transparency is critical, with regular communications offering as much clarity as possible on why decisions have been made.
We need open and inclusive cultures, where honest conversations are welcomed. And we need to give people voice and choice. Autonomy in our ways of working is sorely lacking right now. Enforced home working, without the option to go into the office or a café for a change of scene, is not the same as flexible working, as it lacks the element of choice.
Moving forward, changes to ways of working should be consulted on and agreed upon. As businesses move into the rebuild and recovery phase, they are going to need the innovation, creativity, and productivity that comes from engaged, motivated, and connected teams. Fostering togetherness will not be easy. We should at least start by acknowledging the incongruity of experience within our workforces and building from a place of honesty and compassion.
Katie Jacobs is a senior stakeholder lead at CIPD and a business journalist.