In coming weeks, New York will officially reopen for business and millions of us will shed our sweatpants, venture from our quarantined homes, and brave the rush hour commute. It won’t be like any other Monday morning. COVID-19 has changed the world, it’s changed all of us, and it’s changed the way we work.
We’ll be returning to work — assuming we are lucky enough to still have a job — having survived the worst public health catastrophe in more than a century. With more than 60,000 fatalities nationwide to date, virtually everyone now knows someone who has died of COVID-19, a miserable death that’s been compared to drowning. Barred from gathering at bedsides and funerals, we have also lost the opportunity to grieve in the traditional ways.
Our nation — and the New York metro area as a pandemic epicenter — is experiencing collective grief fueled by social media pleas from sick folks desperately trying to get tested, a steady stream of posts memorializing those who have perished, and 24/7 media images of body bags stacked in hospital hallways. We all feel vulnerable and scared.
Social distancing has changed our routines and sleep patterns; our schedules have been upended. We find comic relief in social media memes about how much wine it will take to get through the quarantine and use “likes” to rationalize day drinking. We’re seeking comfort in food, and now locked out of the gym we barely visited anyway, have nicknamed our continued weight gain the “COVID 15.” Those who avoid life’s foibles by escaping into work are grinding harder and chastising themselves for not being more productive. In reality, we’re not simply working at home; we’re trying to get stuff done while surviving a financial and physical pandemic.
Federal surveys by the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that half of American adults experience a diagnosable anxiety or depressive disorder at some point in their lives. That percentage will climb going forward, since virtually everyone is feeling anxious, stressed, frightened, and worried in ways they haven’t before.
The trauma and its accompanying mental health conditions won’t automatically disappear because someone flips a switch and sends us back to the office. In fact, for some, anxiety or depression will become crippling. They may have a hard time leaving the house or may continue excessive drinking. At the very least, productivity will suffer. Now is the time for companies to consider an Employee Assistance Program for employees who need professional support.
It is also the time for workplaces to begin designing their own rolling re-entry plan guided by lessons learned, gratitude for those who have persevered, and employee input. That plan should include social distancing, easy access to PPE, and other means of ensuring health and safety.
On a more positive note, we have come to understand that remote work makes good employees more productive, not less. While Common Core math is no party, working remotely has given many parents the opportunity to spend more time with their kids, their spouses, and their families. As such, they may not be eager to give back that hour per day to sit in traffic. Workplace flexibility will likely become as important, if not more so, than salary.
We’ve figured out how many meetings could have been emails, but we’ve also come to appreciate how face-to-face contact, small talk, and nuanced exchanges harness our collective power. Re-entry should start with organization-wide gatherings to get everyone reconnected.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and many of his gubernatorial peers have all earned accolades for their clear, consistent, and honest briefings. Corporate executives and workplace managers should understand that honest, frank, and transparent communication is critical to good leadership.
As horrific as COVID-19 has been, it presents a unique opportunity to rebuild our lives, our communities, and our workplaces with a renewed commitment to flexibility, fairness, transparency, humility, and kindness.
Long Island often leads the way, so let’s get to work.
This article first appeared in the May 2020 edition of the Long Island Press