My Zoom Background Is My New BFF – Critical Conversations About Work in the Age of COVID-19

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The pandemic ended breakroom chats, Friday happy hour, and pizza around the conference table. But there is a bright side. We are learning to be remote together. We can draw on each other’s ups, downs, and sometimes sideways experiences to grow stronger and smarter.

.orgCommunity, .orgSource’s networking and educational partner, is hosting a series of“Critical Conversations.”  These events are an opportunity to discuss how .orgCommunity members are coping with the intersection of work, home, family, and adjustments that are necessary to lead their associations through this uncharted territory.

I’m sure there are other leaders wrestling with the same challenges. Being in charge comes with its own brand of isolation, even in an in-person workspace. I thought it might be helpful for those who don’t have a peer network to share snapshots of our group’s last conversation. I’ve changed names and taken liberties with the discussion to keep identities confidential. But I have preserved the essence of our thoughts and comments.

Seek Balance in Chaos

When mom, dad, and the kids are all working in limited space, it’s not the best environment for producing that flawless proposal unless tuning out is your superpower.

Not everyone has an in-home office with a perfect desk, chair, and technology setup. Even the lucky employees who can kick-back in that executive recliner may not have the biggest luxury of all. Privacy isn’t on the agenda when there are a couple of kids trying to home school themselves in the next room.

Since consulting puts me in regular contact with association leaders, CEOs have been calling to ask whether their peers are creating policies to manage the myriad of issues that arise when work is set loose from the nine-to-five office regimen.

Following is our group’s discussion around this topic and related issues.

Remember Humor and Humanity

Humor and humanity help relieve tension.

Sarah: Since school started, remote work has become even more complicated and stressful. My Zoom background is my new best friend. Our team agreed not to apologize when Zoom is interrupted by life. We’ve tried to keep meetings shorter. I’m glad to have a break from back-to-back sessions. When there is an opportunity to take time off the agenda to talk about topics that are not related to work, it helps to relieve the tension. So, I’ve been thinking about how to provide more experiences that inject humor and humanity into our activities.

Mary: As a mom, remote work has been great for me. I’ve been working virtually for several years, and the only significant change COVID has made is positive. My travel is limited now, and I have more time to spend with my family. I’ve discussed accountability with my children. They know that they can peep in my office door from time-to-time. But they also understand that they have some responsibility for managing their activities. It’s not perfect. But neither is life. I’ve tried to help them find solutions to keep the peace and eliminate chaos. On the other hand, the members of my organization really enjoy seeing one another at meetings. They are having challenges envisioning how the remote work style will impact the future.

My boss is a big reason why my work from home experience is successful. He made it clear that the priority is not time, but quality. I don’t worry about someone looking over my shoulder. Today, I took a conference call at the beach. It helped me prepare for a stressful afternoon. Dictating how and where employees should work is an outdated style of management that doesn’t fit with a remote situation.

Linda: I agree with that idea. I tell my team that they own their job and their schedule. If they need to start at 10 and work until six or seven, that’s fine. To ensure consistency, I’ve made it clear to managers that all reasonable work schedules are acceptable. People who are feeling pressure know they can talk to me.

My organization does a good job being flexible. But developing policies that can be implemented across the board is challenging. Everyone is juggling, and there is no end in sight. The office is a fairly level playing field. But home is not. Some staff members have more challenging situations than others. If you are considering replacing an employee who isn’t performing based on traditional expectations, remember that it costs time and money to onboard someone new, and everyone is juggling some kind of chaos.

Give Mental and Emotional Space

Sherry: Have you experienced issues with performance?

Quality time with family is one option for staycations.

Linda: No, but the shape of work has changed. It’s definitely not business as usual. The transition to virtual was very fast, and people did a great job. But there are ebbs and flows in each person’s commitment. This reflects pandemic burn-out. When so much is off-kilter, people need mental and emotional space.

Sherry: Yes, it’s important to acknowledge that we are doing everything differently, and the future is uncertain. Along with supporting the staff, you are also managing the board and their expectations, so you may be experiencing conflict on several fronts.

Susan: One issue that has surfaced for us is that no one wants to take vacation.

Sherry: That seems to be a common problem. Clients have asked me whether other employers are cashing out vacation time or whether they are finding alternate ways to compensate employees.

John: Our leadership team is working through that issue as well. This is a popular season to take time off, but some people are afraid to travel, and others don’t want to quarantine if they move from place to place.

Mary: Above all, lead by example. If you’re asking your staff to take vacation, make sure you do too. Staycations are an option. Spend quality time with your family or take care of important household projects. There’s an interesting Harvard Business Review article on the value of vacation and recommendations for the pandemic. Extending the weekend with a Monday or Friday holiday is a good way to take a short break when you can only be away for a limited time.

Recognize Differences

Sherry:  Mark, your company has been virtual for some time, and you’ve had tremendous growth over the last year or so. How are you dealing with onboarding and culture?

Mark: I was hired as the result of an online relationship with the company and had never met anyone in person. This organization understands that the key to a positive culture is finding the right people. It starts with our CEO who is authentic and clear about expectations. She emphasizes that we are all accountable to each other.

I think the lighthearted aspects of our culture are important. Everyone honors lunch. From noon to one people are not available. The staff and leadership embrace and celebrate the things about the team that make each member unique and fun. People aren’t afraid to look silly or to make an occasional mistake.

We realize that there have to be policies or agreements that we can live with. In a remote workplace, Internet security is one area where clear rules are critical. We’re developing and initiating strategies for keeping our software and hardware safe.

John: Our staff of 45 are all working from home, and our culture has held up well. Leadership would like us to be in the office. But there is no pressure. When the pandemic began, we were lucky to have digital tools in place. There are still a few challenges. You need the right people on the bus. That’s true now more than ever.

Mark: On the other hand, some people who weren’t a perfect fit in the office may be better suited for remote work.

Mary: There are definitely people who flourish in a remote environment. For me, it takes the focus off culture and puts it on work. COVID has helped people reevaluate who they want to work with and how they get work done.

Acknowledge Fears

Joan: I started my job at the beginning of the pandemic. I didn’t have time to get to know people under ordinary circumstances. I’ve noticed a lot of sensitivity and self-criticism. I’m guessing it’s a reflection of stress. Job security is a huge concern. Even when all appears to be well, employees wonder whether conversations about cutbacks may be occurring among leadership.

Susan: We are not currently planning any layoffs. But we can’t control the future. We’re doing the best under the circumstances, although we are not in a position to give guarantees. The environment is highly uncertain. Even when I address the issue head-on, employees understand that I’m talking about today, not six months from now.

Mike. So far, our industry and our members have not been impacted by the pandemic. For us, next year is the unknown. To prepare, we’ve been planning for smaller membership numbers and discussing alternate sources of revenue.

One challenge has been the tradition of year-end bonuses which we weren’t sure we could accommodate. The issue that we’ve been discussing about vacation helped solve that problem. We allowed people to roll over vacation to build up the bonus pool.

In a previous job, I was a remote employee. I’ve learned that there is a difference between making the decision to be remote and being forced to work this way. Our company is doing well with work-life balance. Our CEO is awesome at setting expectations that people take care of themselves. But we struggle with our customer service team. They need to be on the phone from nine to five, and it’s hard to rearrange those schedules. Systemic racism in our city is another problem. We’ve been trying to address those issues head-on. We did a seven-week all-staff professional development series about race and privilege in the workplace. It was hard but very valuable. We seem to be tackling a number of challenging issues at once.

Mark: You never know how much stress you can handle until you’re put to a test like this one. The investment companies make in open communication, inclusivity, and co-creation expands the reservoir of trust they can call on to survive stressful situations. Some of the problems that have surfaced have actually been there all along. It’s important to acknowledge the deeper issues and explore fixing the root cause.

This conversation could have continued well beyond the hour that we allocated. Here are a few of my thoughts:

  • Humanity, humor, and humility are critical. If you are a CEO who has difficulty engaging with employees on a personal level, step out of your comfort zone.
  • Policies and procedures are necessary, but when you hire people who will thrive in your culture, they become less critical.
  • Building a reservoir of trust can help see your organization through difficult times.
  • It may be challenging for some leaders and managers to adjust to a more flexible style of work. But if you hired well, relax, and trust your team.
  • Leading through extreme change requires courage, honesty, and accountability.

It was cathartic for me to hear others express the range of emotions that I have experienced. These amazing colleagues are a reminder of why I chose to be a consultant and why I love working in the association community. And, let me take a moment to thank the universe for my very professional Zoom background.

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