Are You Tolerating The Pandemic Or Adapting To It?
With great excitement, I dusted off my suit, filled up my pockets with business cards, and left the office for the convention centre. It felt so good to be attending a conference again in person! I was excited, but also a little nervous. Throughout the morning, it quickly became apparent that the same topics were being discussed in each session: diversity, equity and inclusion, mental health, ways to attract and retain talent through flexible work arrangements, and improved benefits. Even if the session was on a different topic, everyone was keen to talk about how companies were managing post pandemic–it was like people hadn’t been to a conference in years…
Many times during the day I was struck by how profoundly we have changed through the pandemic, and yet how little things have changed for many employees returning to work. With welcoming people back to the office, we have an opportunity to change things, to show our people that we haven’t simply tolerated the pandemic, but that we have adapted to it.
Adaptation vs Toleration
Merriam Webster defines tolerate as “putting up with something.” Imagine the screaming baby on the plane scenario — we tolerate the noise knowing that the flight will be over soon. Adapting, however, is different, and is defined as “adjusting to environmental conditions” — we anticipate the potential of a screaming baby and bring noise cancelling headphones or ear plugs to make the situation bearable if it arises. When we adapt, we become better suited to our environment, and are more likely to enjoy it. Gallup’s Global Workplace 2022 report suggests that we’ll spend a lifetime total of 81,396 hours at work…that’s a lot of time with a screaming baby!
What are some signs that we have simply tolerated the pandemic, and have not adapted to it?
Your Organization Requires Everyone to Physically Be in the Office
There was a lot of discussion at the conference on flexible work arrangements. Now that we are through the worst of the pandemic, does everyone in your organization need to physically be back in the office?
There is a need to recognize that there are employees who may still have heightened anxiety levels around COVID. At the time this article was written (July 2022), almost 6.4 million people had died globally, with roughly 42,000 of those being Canadian. This, paired with many people making significant housing changes during the pandemic to increase square footage and reduce commutes, suggests that building flexibility into the work week, and using technology and space in new ways to work with your people as opposed to against them will lead to engaging and retaining your people.
At one of the conference seminars, Michael Weeks, Senior HR Leader at Amazon Canada, talked about the importance of listening to employees, honouring their differences, and avoiding telling them what to do. Co-panelist Amanada Cennon, head of future of work & employee experience at Electronic Arts, encouraged organizations to base collaboration and employee interaction on the kinds of task individuals and teams are tackling; high task complexity or relationship complexity projects might be better suited to in person meetings, with more autonomous work better suited to home-offices.
The Way in Which You Support Your Employee’s Total Health Hasn’t Changed
Employee health was another common theme at the conference. A sign that your organization is simply tolerating the pandemic is that the way you approach supporting employee total health hasn’t changed from pre-pandemic support.
“Do employees find their work meaningful and rewarding? Do they think their lives are going well? Do they feel hopeful about the future? The short answer is that most employees around the world would answer ‘no’ to all three questions.”
Despite numerous sources reporting elevating levels of employee stress and anxiety, the Conference Board of Canada reported last year that only 18 per cent of Canadian employers have raised the maximums for their psychological services, and 58 per cent are keeping employee support levels as they are. Yet many employers in the UK are now providing additional measures to support their employees, with the most widely adopted being more focus on looking after employees’ mental health, more support tailored to individuals’ needs and concern, such as flexible work, and new or better support for people working from home.
Toleration vs Adaptation?
However, signs that we are tolerating the pandemic might be a good thing. After a wobbly start at the conference that any introvert would understand, I hit my networking stride and by the end of the day, realized that I had genuinely missed rubbing shoulders with my colleagues. Yes, attending conference sessions from the comfort of our homes has a certain appeal, but there is no substitute for a well-planned in-person conference, and no technology that can re-create the experience of sharing conference stories at happy hour with old colleagues. Perhaps I was simply tolerating on-line conferences and hadn’t adapted to the new conferencing format.
Handshakes, high-fives, and the occasional hug…2022 conferencing was a much needed change for many of us and a reminder that we are all facing similar HR issues in our organizations. With variants and sub-variants on the rise, the screaming baby is here to stay. Failure to recognize that the world of work has changed when viable alternatives exist, and have been proven to work, will lead to even tougher times ahead. Let’s not make our employees tolerate screaming babies but adapt our workplaces to account for the issues the pandemic has made us aware of.
*Editor’s Note: The conference referenced in the article was Tech Talent North, which took place on June 8, 2022 in Vancouver, B.C.