On a recent Friday morning, I met with my direct reports as I normally do. But we didn’t talk about work. We talked about life which, on that day, included these senior leaders’ concern for a sick child, sadness over a son’s missed 18th birthday celebration, and frustrations about losing family get-togethers over the holidays—all because of COVID-19.
But there was a silver lining: we were authentically sharing what was real for us. As one of my team members remarked, “Four years ago, we would never have had this conversation.”
Indeed, the pandemic has not only ushered in new ways of working, but new ways of being, relating and managing at work, as well. My team members pegged the change. Four years ago, I’m not sure that any of us would have shared what was really going on in our personal lives if it involved anything sad or frightening. We might have just put on a good face and not opened up. Before COVID-19, work was where one went to escape personal challenges, not to reveal them.
Now, people live at work. We join video calls from our homes while our kids go to school in their bedrooms. The office holiday party won’t happen, at least not in person, and virtual cooking class parties may be a highlight of shared workplace holiday cheer. We know coworkers who’ve lost people. We’ve all lost treasured rituals: graduations, weddings, funerals, high school football games, vacations, and dropping our kids off at college for the first time. Missed holiday gathers are next. For some people, work is now their primary arena for socializing because it is harder to get together with their inner circle of friends and family. Our lives have been upended but we still seek to remain productive and engaged at work—even while grieving for what we’ve lost and fighting burnout.
At my tech company, Red Hat, we’ve embraced the idea that people bring their whole selves to work, and that now includes COVID-19 related grief and loss. To make work even more more like family, which we think will be especially important as people navigate the holidays, we’re:
Helping managers be more real
Some great managers might not be great at having authentic conversations with co-workers. The typical 1:1 is all about business, performance, and goals. Today, many people are feeling overwhelmed, stretched thin, and as much as they don’t want to be, burned out. Managers need to go deeper than work topics to connect with their losses. We have found that most managers are simply not equipped to deal with grief and loss experienced by team members. We crafted a “one on one conversation guide” to help Red Hat managers and associates be more skilled at accessing and showing vulnerability to one another. We aimed to create psychological safety for both parties to share flexibility and support they need to deal with their unique challenges. The guide includes “discussion prompts” to encourage managers to ask associates about their “top stressors”—priorities that need to be adjusted, flexibility needs around children.
In addition, to the discussion guide, we held coaching sessions to help managers react more effectively when someone shares about a loss. In one session, I learned that there is a big difference between simply saying, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and actually including the name of the person who passed away in the expression of concern. While we encourage managers to “listen more” than they speak to give associates space to share, we also ask managers to be transparent about their challenges. In our quarterly meetings of all Red Hat managers, we’ve created space for managers to discuss how things are going, what works and what doesn’t. After all, managers are suffering losses too, and need friendly listeners.
Offering grief, trauma counseling
As leaders, one of our first jobs is simply to be aware of how our people are doing. To help people access and acknowledge feelings of grief and loss we have a grief, trauma and loss expert hosting a series of webinars, “What Now, 2020?” The half-hour sessions have been attended by hundreds of employees, who talk to the counselor and also share with each other via chat. Mourning the loss of loved ones isn’t the only type of grief of trauma people are experiencing. In one of the sessions, an associate shared fear of potential violence around social injustice issues given where she lived. By sharing that kind of vulnerability with others, more people may become more aware of their own feelings of grief, trauma, and loss.
Encouraging mental health “recharge” days
Taking time off is always an option but people may not actually rest on those days if everybody else is working and emails keep piling up. We have also found that some associates are reluctant to take PTO when they aren’t able to travel. When they do take it, work is always in the next room and it’s difficult to truly unplug. To ensure that everybody takes a day off—and that we all take a collective breath—we’ve created quarterly Red Hat Recharge day. Studies show the virtual workday is longer for many workers, which makes this shared time away even more valuable. In our focus groups and surveys, Red Hatters have expressed a huge amount of appreciation for this time to do what gives them energy.
Every one of our 16,000+ associates across the globe is living in a COVID-19 impacted world. They’re all processing the disruptions of our changed society in their own way. The distinction between our work and personal life have become blurred and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! By making room for some of that processing at work our associates feel more connected and supported by the organization. By leaning on another for support, we help each other and ultimately, our businesses. While in the past we might not have felt comfortable bringing our full selves to work and sharing our challenges with our work friends or managers, it is safe to share them with the people who—because we’ve shared this experience—have become our work families.
DeLisa Alexander is the chief people officer and executive vice president of open source technology company Red Hat.