Workplace equity in the time of Covid
Remote work versus onsite work
In a recent conflict coaching session, Delia*, a healthcare worker, told me she was upset because a woman she supervised – Cathy* – had contacted Delia’s supervisor via email with a concern that Delia thought had been resolved. Delia explained to me that the day before, she and Cathy met online for a supervision session. Cathy was about to come back to onsite work after having been quarantined in her house for two weeks, as advised by a doctor who thought she might have Covid-19 (she didn’t).
When the quarantine in their state began, Cathy’s team decided to rotate onsite and remote shifts. Health workers were still required onsite to treat clients, but by keeping minimal staff performing only essential services, they would prevent their whole team from getting sick if a staff person or client brought Covid-19 into the workplace one day. So, every health worker had three days a week of remote work, and two days onsite. The schedule rotated so nobody would have to work, say, every Friday.
In their supervision session, Cathy explained to Delia that she didn’t want to come in to work onsite because she was afraid of getting Covid-19. Her husband was also a health worker, and she was already afraid that he was going to bring it home and pass it onto his family. While Cathy had been quarantined, her kids had been staying with their grandparents, and Cathy was eager to have them home again. She asked Delia if she could just work remotely all five days of the week. Delia and Cathy talked through it, and by the end of the call, Delia thought she had convinced Cathy that she needed to come onsite two days a week, along with the rest of the staff.
The next day, Delia was blind copied on an email from her supervisor, Jackie*, to Cathy. After their session, Cathy had written a long email to Jackie explaining why she really didn’t want to work onsite, listing the reasons she had discussed with Delia, and asked if she could take sick leave on the days she was scheduled to work onsite. Jackie replied (with a blind copy to Delia) that Cathy could not take sick leave, but she could take Family Medical Leave (FML) on those two days.
Delia was upset because she thought the issue had been resolved already and then Cathy contacted Delia’s supervisor without Delia’s knowledge. Delia felt surprised and blindsided, because in the year that Delia had been supervising Cathy, nothing about her behavior patterns related to work ethic would have allowed Delia to predict that Cathy would be unwilling to work onsite, alongside the rest of the team. Delia also had trouble trusting Cathy’s various reasons for wanting to stay home, because her reasoning felt inconsistent to Delia. When I asked Delia what she wanted to get out of the conflict, she told me that she would like Cathy to acknowledge the fact that she was not the only one at risk for getting Covid-19 – they were all putting themselves at risk because they were essential workers.
How inequities can affect organizational functioning
When Delia told me what she wanted, she got right to the core issue: fairness. If the entire team was putting themselves at risk of getting Covid-19, how was it fair that one employee was able to stay home because she didn’t want to get the virus?
Inequities, along with lack of autonomy, disrespect, low morale, power hierarchies, and absence of shared goals, are a primary reason for pervasive, unproductive organizational conflict. Nothing drives us crazy like the feeling that other people are being treated better than we are for no good reason. If you’ve ever visited a kindergarten class, you will see how important fairness is to keeping the peace – all of the children get a treat, or nobody gets a treat.
When Delia and I started talking through how other staff members were adjusting to the new work pattern, she said that there was one other person who was using FML on the days she was scheduled to work onsite. I asked Delia what she thought might happen when Cathy’s coworkers found out that she was given permission to use FML when she was supposed to be working onsite. Cathy readily replied that they were going to be very upset. I pointed out that not only were these two employees exercising privileges that were not warranted, it was a potential misuse of FML. If these employees continued to receive special treatment (whether the organization intended it to be special treatment or not), it could really damage team morale, especially during such an unstable and scary time. Delia could expect to see other employees demanding the same privileges or becoming burnt out because they were carrying the duties that others refused to perform.
A proactive approach to conflict management
I suggested that Delia and her supervisor may want to consider implementing staff-informed supports based on an assumption that we would all be going through this for a long time, and possibly in cycles. What ongoing challenges do staff face in this environment when doing onsite work? Issues with childcare? Limited resources? Fear? Exhaustion? Confusion? Finding out what staff need to remain sane at work, and then helping them find it and get it, will not only smooth out future bumps, but will also make staff feel supported, valued, and validated in their feelings and struggles.
Delia said that she planned on interviewing her supervisees to find out what was making it hard for them to work, onsite or off. I suggested that she and her supervisor may want to follow up individual interviews with an all-team meeting, during which everybody would be encouraged to share their feelings and concerns about work. This meeting could also be a good time for a resource and idea exchange. What were people doing for childcare? How are people taking care of themselves? What could the department or organization do that would keep morale up and show staff that they were valued? Just having the meeting and allowing for the honest expression of feelings will improve morale and increase team cohesiveness. A remote talking circle would be a great format for a meeting like this.
Using the collective to solve the conflict
So what should Delia and her supervisor do about the employees who have already been given permission to take FML on the days that they are scheduled to work onsite? This is a very tricky situation, because they have already been told what they are doing is okay. Technically, nobody is supposed to know when somebody is using FML, but Delia acknowledged that in a team their size, word would get out somehow.
In cases like these, a combination of validation and honesty is best. It is also helpful to remember one of the HS Primary Principles: Everybody is doing the best they can with what they have and what they know.
True, it may not be fair that two employees are taking FML to avoid working onsite. It does not mean, however, that their feelings and concerns are not valid, or that they are bad employees. I suggested to Delia that she talk with Cathy again to find out what, exactly, was keeping her from working onsite (in person, if at all possible). It’s quite possible that Cathy herself is unsure of the exact reasons and creating a safe, confidential space to clarify those reasons would be useful. It could be that she does not have childcare for those two days, because her partner works onsite all week. Or, maybe her parents are putting pressure on her to stay home because the kids go back and forth between houses and they don’t want to be put at risk. If it truly is that Cathy is afraid of getting Covid-19, Delia and her supervisor may have to help Cathy think through the potential inequities of the situation with kindness and compassion. Once Cathy acknowledges the lack of fairness, it would be very difficult for her to continue using FML the way she has been.
At the team meeting, employees’ fears about getting Covid-19 and passing it to their families will almost certainly be discussed. Without “outing” Cathy and the other coworker, the discussion can be facilitated in such a way so that the team can problem-solve around what to do if one or more team members simply become too frightened to continue to work onsite. What can team members do to support their coworkers? What organizational resources are available? What are people’s thoughts about using sick leave or FML on days they are schedule to be onsite? Before the meeting, Delia and her supervisor should make sure to let Cathy and the other employee taking leave know that they intend to bring up the issue at the team meeting because they are almost certain it will come up again, and it would be good to have a consensus around what is fair and best for the entire team.
Applying an HS Primary Principle: A challenge is best solved by the person or group most affected
In the end, the best person to come up with the solution to a problem is the person who is closest to the problem, or most affected by the problem. Therefore, Cathy and the other coworker can be given a safe space to clarify their concerns, and then, if necessary, be coached through the potential effects of their actions on other team members, as well as the organization as a whole. Then, Cathy and the other employee can decide what the best solution is for them.
As a group, the team can contribute all of their experiences, expertise, and perspective in order to make informed decisions about what the barriers might be during quarantine, and then they can decide how best to solve them.
*Names and identifying details have been changed or omitted to preserve clients’ confidentiality.