Someone recently asked me, “When do you think we can start pushing our teams to achieve pre-pandemic performance levels again, I mean, it’s been five months?”
This past March in North America a giant remote work experiment began for many as an Adrenaline-fueled sprint. Organizations raced to get workers set up with home offices, stores sold out of computer monitors and tablets, and internet providers were inundated with rush requests to set up new or upgraded access. Coworkers helped each other learn how to use Zoom, access files on the physical server still located in their office, and move money without the ability to access check stock. The thought for many was, “let’s hunker down for a bit until this blows over. We’ll see each other back in the office in a few weeks, maybe a month or two, tops.” That moment feels like it was a lifetime ago.
Then came the mobile morgues lining the streets of my home of New York City, field hospitals set up in Central Park, and more than 150,000 of our friends and loved ones across the U.S. taken from us too soon.
Now more than five months into sheltering in place and physical distancing we have new hot spots rolling back reopening plans, and what initially seemed to be a stopgap has become the new norm. Maybe we’ll go back to offices in some form at some point. Maybe. However, we’ve spent half a year building new habits and routines that this has now become how we live and work.
I’ve read articles quoting managers and leaders saying their teams are actually performing better than they expected then when working in the office (there’s plenty of evidence to suggest under the right conditions this shouldn’t be a surprise). However, this evidence often includes the caveat, you know, except those who are parents and caregivers who are now juggling work, childcare, homeschooling, etc.
I think that’s a significant caveat when roughly 35% of Americans are working parents. And it becomes an even more challenging caveat when you consider caregiving falls disproportionately on women and those earning low incomes who are less likely to be able to “outsource” that care, and more likely to live in multi-generational homes.
So, you know, that aside, can we start pushing people and teams to again work at their pre-pandemic levels? My short answer: Proceed with caution.
The Other Kind of COVID Haircut
The early days of COVID saw plenty of DIY tips, from sourdough starters to home haircuts. Videos abound about how to trim your own bangs, and forums for finding sold out hair care supplies (ProTip: Petco).
In finance parlance there’s this concept of a “haircut” when booking the value of a loan. As in, we loaned an institution $100,000, but if they default on it, the collateral will only likely net us $90,000, so we need to factor in a 10% haircut on the loan. I’ve been increasingly thinking of that concept with regards to the performance impact on teams and organizations as we settle into “pandemic performance.” Let’s call this the *other* kind of COVID haircut.
The COVID haircut recognizes that we might need to take what was possible for our team to accomplish pre-COVID and shave off 10–15%. We’re losing that productivity because people are caring for loved ones, possibly homeschooling their children, and generally trying to survive a pandemic that’s much bigger than any one individual job. The COVID haircut means we might need to add more team members if we still plan on accomplishing the same things. It might mean we need to scale back our assumptions about what’s possible, even during a time when we’re facing the real possibility of so many companies closing up shop and needing to do more with less.
But, for those who say we need to press ahead per usual, be warned. Most of us, particularly our most vulnerable colleagues, have been operating deep in the red for a long time. Pushing people to achieve might actually result in you “blowing the engine.” What does blowing the engine look like in a human context? Disengagement and their eventual departure.
I recognize that what I’m saying here with this last point is really challenging. The cultural sector is largely shuttered. Except for a few bright spots, charitable contributions are likely to take a hit as donors shift their giving or tighten their belts for an extended period of uncertainty. And yet, if we’re going to survive, let alone truly thrive, time is not on our side to figure out solutions in the face of non-existent tours, canceled Nutcracker seasons that bankroll the rest of the year, and no real idea about when artists and audience will feel comfortable gathering again in indoor spaces. How can we work hard enough to survive as organizations and as a sector, while remaining compassionate and humane to ourselves and our colleagues who are dealing with fallout from several compounding apocalypses? (Related: And what can we learn from our colleagues and communities who have effectively been balancing these challenges for years?)
Embedded in that person’s initial question — When do you think we can start pushing our teams to achieve pre-pandemic performance levels again? — is the concept of productivity. And here too, it’s not a simple answer. Productivity itself is a tool of racism and the violence of capitalism. It’s often paired with that Characteristic of White Supremacy Culture, a sense of urgency, making the challenge even more messy. How do we square that we need to take care of ourselves while also mustering the energy to do what’s needed to ensure that we all still have jobs and an organization this time next year?
One way to do this is to reframe productivity from time spent working to results achieved. We’re hearing more about shifting this frame with the increasing number of advocates for the four-day workweek. Let’s put the emphasis on *what* we’re doing rather than if Henry Ford would approve of the number of days and hours we spend trying to accomplish it. (Aside: I love that at the start of 2020 it seemed like 99% of workplaces felt they could never accommodate remote work. A mere six months later, with that dam finally broken and in the midst of pandemic and revolution, people are like, four day workweek? Why not?!)
This is what leadership means though, to be able to hold in your head that “productivity” can be weaponized against marginalized people (for example, you might not be as productive at your job if you’re tending to a sick relative) AND we need to dig into our reserves to survive AND we likely need to invent new and different ways of working to accomplish it.
Re-evaluate Your Deadlines
So what to make of this. I’ve written before about the Battle of the Urgent vs. the Important. Often when I talk about that, I say the Important is often relegated to a rainy day that never comes as we put out the constant fires of the Urgent. Well, good news my friend, that rainy day has arrived. The Important is now Urgent.
We can try those once far-fetched ideas that were brushed aside for years because now they just might be what saves the company. They might just be what’s needed to co-create a more just and equitable organization, sector, and world.
Each of us must now take a giant handful of spaghetti from the idea bowl and chuck it against the wall. It’s 2020, the impossible is now possible. What ideas stick now that might not have before? And how do we prioritize the work we need to do to survive and thrive? How do we scale back on what usually takes up the bulk of our days so that we can create a more sustainable and equitable future for our organizations?
As you’re trying to figure out how to make space and time for high priority work, I offer this frame of the three kinds of deadlines:
- Hard deadlines: Absolutely must happen. Really bad things will happen if we don’t make this deadline. (Think: Paying employees on the regular date when they’re supposed to be paid. I consider that a hard deadline.)
- Soft Deadlines. We really want to make sure this happens. It’s important, but maybe we set the deadline, or even someone else set the deadline, but it can be moved. (Think: Deadline to file taxes. For most, that date is actually a soft deadline since in many cases you can usually file an extension to buy yourself more time.)
- Wishlist Deadlines: Jettison it or icebox it for another day. Actually, if you’re thinking “icebox it,” just jettison it. Once something has spent any time in the icebox it never comes out as fresh as when it went in. (I’m looking at you pint of forgotten Cherry Garcia ice cream). It might be great if it happened at some point, but we’re in triage mode, operating with less bandwidth, so we need to be really clear about our priorities and what’s actually possible.
Being able to identify what needs to get done right now, what needs to get done soon-ish, and what we’re just never going to get around to doing helps clarify our thinking and priorities. This in turn helps us all see where there’s room to flex and focus.
Lead With Compassion
Whether your employees are rock stars who aren’t performing at their usual levels or if they were struggling to hit performance goals pre-pandemic, lead any conversations about productivity with kindness and compassion. No one, except for maybe the crew at the CDC, signed up for this. We are still living through a global pandemic with no end in sight, while now increasingly — and much overdue — confronting the systemic racism upon which our country and most of our organizations were built. Parents are still juggling 24/7/365 childcare; coworkers are sick with COVID-19, and many are fearful that their two choices might eventually be: (1) return to a workplace where they don’t feel safe and that can’t actually protect them from contracting COVID, or (2) lose their livelihood.
If people continue to struggle, talk about what’s on their plate, how they approach their work, and what’s realistic given everything that they can complete. Seek to understand what’s at play when you have your check-ins.
If you haven’t cultivated psychological safety pre-COVID, don’t automatically expect people to open up about the challenges they face outside of the office. If you’re new to the concept of psychological safety, check out the amazing work of Amy C. Edmondson.
You might also find that there are people on your team who are thriving. There’s the concept of the 80/20 rule, or Pareto Principle, where 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In HR, I tend to think of it as the 95/5 Rule. Leaders and managers spend 95% of their time thinking about and working with 5% of their people, usually the ones who are struggling. Unfortunately, this makes us miss the great work being done day in and day out by the people who are thriving.
Scan your team. Who is actually thriving given the shift to an entirely virtual workplace? Learn from their experiences and share them broadly. We can often learn a lot from this group that can help those who are struggling. It might involve strategies around scheduling, or self-care, or organizing their workflow.
People can thrive for a multitude of reasons. They now have three extra hours in their day when not commuting. They don’t have to shoulder the burden of countless microaggressions experienced during their workday. They can stay in “flow” longer when not being constantly interrupted by colleagues popping by to ask them that “quick question.” They’re connecting with family and friends more frequently and are buoyed by those connections. They can go for walks in the middle of the day, or meditate without constantly thinking people will question whether they’re working because their eyes are closed.
At What Cost Do We Survive?
Underpinning this is a reminder to all of us: At what cost do we achieve our missions? Do we do it by burning through people? Do we do it without showing empathy and exhibiting humanity and understanding? Do we do it by further burdening those coworkers who are most vulnerable? Or, do we approach this in a way that demonstrates we are going to try our hardest, given what’s humanly and reasonably possible during this unprecedented time even with the knowledge that, for some organizations, it still won’t be enough to survive?
This is all no easy task. Or is it? In the best of times, leading means holding multiple competing ideas in your mind at the same time and still moving forward. In the midst of global pandemic and social revolution, it feels to have gotten even more challenging. However, let me propose that in the midst of a pandemic and revolution it actually makes it easier to do what’s right and just. We are living through the one moment in our lives when we can effect real, systemic change. All you have to do is to start doing the work today. That will lead to asking different questions and exploring other avenues so that the question — When do you think we can start pushing our teams to achieve pre-pandemic performance levels again? — ceases to be the question that we think we need to answer.
The missions we hold, and protect, and work to foster should extend to how we treat ourselves and our teams. If the gulf is too wide, our teams won’t be resilient or invested enough to really make the change that’s needed to survive in this new future we’re creating together. Fractured Atlas has been working on building an equitable and people-centered workplace, and sharing that knowledge on Work. Shouldn’t. Suck.
Tim Cynova is a leader, consultant, and educator dedicated to creating anti-racist workplaces by using people-centric organizational design. He is a certified Senior Professional in HR, trained mediator, principal at Work. Shouldn’t. Suck., teaches on faculty at New York’s The New School and Canada’s Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and also currently serves as a Co-CEO of Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit organization that helps artists with the business aspects of their work.