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What is "Normal" Anyway?

March 2020 came in like a storm and has led to long-term changes for everyone. As a therapist, I thought telework would be around for 2-3 months, and here we are a year later still on the virtual platform.

After working for close to 30 years in the field, I was not prepared for the change in my work experience. Making the switch from working in “normal” ways to a virtual platform has proven challenging on many levels. Many employees had to learn ways to use this platform (technical knowledge) while learning ways to turn their living space into a functional office space. To add to this, many families had the additional challenge of learning new ways to engage with their families during this “forced time of connection”. As a result of feeling “forced” to learn new ways to spend social time with families, there was a sudden stop to other types of socialization. No hanging out after work, no cookouts on the weekends, no weddings - and funerals became virtual experiences. I consider myself to be a social human being -human interaction is important for me and it felt different to try to connect over Zoom or other platforms. Luckily, I was able to identify ways to ensure that I remained connected as I could with my beneficiaries and friends. This often took extra effort and becoming creative and flexible in my dealings with others.

Everything was still new in those first 3-6 months and called for increased flexibility and further adjustment. After that time, things got real and real quick as it appeared that no end was in sight. I had to invest in lounging clothing to be comfortable at home for this extended period of time. The buzz-word became the “new normal,” but no one had any specifics on when, how, or if this would occur. During this time many started to feel anxiety and lose connection with their supportive circles. I noticed an increase in conflicts in families and overall dissatisfaction with working. I’m sure these conversations were taking place in families and with close friends but not with employers. The focus remained on the bottom line of business, profit, and profitability.

Move forward to February of 2021 and the hope that we are moving into a post-pandemic phase, but what does that really mean? Many people feel that they are not prepared to return to work as it was in 2020 because of the fear of the pandemic (which still exists) and how working from home has become comfortable. At this point, most have learned ways to maneuver around the kids being in virtual school, ways to cook, and take care of the house in between virtual meetings. Most importantly they have learned ways to look professional from the waist up.

As we move forward and think about the next phase of work, what does that look like? Is hybrid the option for all, and how will this work? Who will return to the office and who will remain virtual?

We have to find ways to keep newer employees connected so their voice is heard. This is not an issue if you have a personality that extends beyond the camera, but it is more of a challenge for ones that tend to be more introspective.

Burnout is real!!!! There seems to be more hours in a day when you are working from home so it is easy to try to fill those hours with work. This leads to employees taking on more responsibilities than they would in person and then feeling resentful. The need to ensure balance is in place helps employees to avoid mental health crises. Reports are now saying that 41% of employees are looking to change employment. That’s a lot of transition and what is the root cause? What could decrease that number and help employees find long term stability and meet the dream of upward mobility?

What will the new normal be for employees? I’m curious if one day the expectation will be to resume working as it was in 2020? What will the transition period look like for this to occur? The same support needed to switch to a virtual platform will be needed to switch back to the workaday world.

What about the fear of the pandemic? Will everyone be expected to ignore their fears and get back out there? What about employees with children, will they have to suck it up and send them back to school, ready or not here they come? What about the employees that have felt isolated, leading to resentments - do they bring that back to shared work space or will they just disappear?

Communication has to start now on what this will look like for all. It is never too early to start having these conversations in your agency and with your families. A plan for transition has to be in place because we are currently in the midst of another shift in employment. Flexibility, grace, and ownership are the guiding principles. So now what?

The following questions could be used to start the needed conversations to determine if your employees are prepared to make yet another transition in their work experience, and what that could and should look like. These questions call for open and honest dialogue. The responses should then be used to make plans for the next phase of work.

  1. Are you ready to return to work in person, and in what capacity?

  2. What would be a realistic timeframe for the transition?

  3. Do you have any safety concerns for yourself and/or your family as we consider a transition back to work?

  4. What would you consider to be a barrier (childcare, tech challenges, etc) for you and how can we help?

  5. What are your challenges with the virtual platform, and do you have any recommendations if this is your preferred method of work?

  6. What do you think about a hybrid model of returning to work and what are your concerns in this area?

  7. Were there any challenges during virtual work that need to be discussed before transitioning back to a “normal” work environment?

  8. Have you lost any motivation for your position during the virtual experience?

  9. Do you feel your voice is heard and you are making significant contributions at this time in your career? If not, what can we do to help?

  10. Do you feel as if your workload is appropriate for your position and reimbursement, or do we need to make adjustments?

Starting this conversation is mandatory as we don't want to work in a reactive environment. While so much today is out of our control, by taking ownership we can plan a transition that works for all. Let’s co-create our new normal.

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