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The Human Side of the New Normal

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Malone
November 2, 2021

Public organizations from villages, communities, counties, states and the federal level are all coming to a reckoning—a new frightening, unnerving and never-before-seen new normal. There’s no doubt about it—the last 18 months have been some of the most trying times we’ve withstood both personally and professionally. COVID-19 yielded harmful consequences and immense loss for so many of those serving our communities. So much so that it remains difficult to think about returning to the workplace. Many agencies and departments are now making that move and starting to go back not to the way it used to be, but rather to a “new normal.” But before we grab hold of this new existence, we must first understand what this transition means to so many of those in our public space.

As the pandemic began to rage across our nation, it did so amidst a lonely and fearful populace. 61% of adults report they are lonely, a dramatic seven percentage-point increase from 2018. To make things worse, social media users, particularly in those in Generation-Z and Millennials report higher levels of loneliness than older generations. All in all, we are a nation of lonely people. We are also a nation that is scared. The annual Chapman University Fear index notes that Americans’ top fears are dominated by people we love dying, a loved one contracting COVID-19, people we love becoming seriously ill, civil unrest, a pandemic and biological warfare—all of these making the top 10. The number one fear of Americans? Corrupt government officials.

The great resignation is underway as well. Millions have left the workforce in recent months with no stated intention of returning. According to the Labor Department, four million people left their job in April 2021 alone. Why? They aren’t taking it anymore. Long gone are the days of staff commuting 90 minutes to a toxic work environment complete with a narcissistic boss. And the kicker? It will never be the same. Employees from all sectors are demanding transparency, development, trusting environments, compassion and care.

Welcome to the new normal.

In order to safely and effectively return to a more traditional work setting, public leaders must take a step beyond work schedules, spacing, plexiglass walls and mask requirements. We need to begin by assessing the mental health of our workforce. Our workers are lonely, and they are afraid. And just because we are now looking for ways to move back into the workplace, that does not mitigate the real fears and the challenges of loneliness. Leaders must take the human into consideration when planning for the new environment. To ensure success, consider the following steps:

Start with empathetic listening. Public servants care for others, and they deserve the same. People need to feel like they are heard and understood and everyone’s experience with the pandemic brings its unique pain. Simple acknowledgment and understanding on the part of bosses is not enough. Leaders need to show empathy through patient and active listening. Accommodate their needs and allow for a gradual return that meets the specific needs of each of our team members.

Trust matters for our citizens, it should for us as well. Now, more than ever, it is important to nurture trusting relationships that exist and build those that don’t. Our workforce has been exposed to a wide array of disparate views on politics, the coronavirus and most other topics for the last many years. Citizens need and deserve the comfort of trust and they look to the leadership of our organizations for guidance and consistency. Be that beacon.

Be cognizant of stress. Having people return to work will increase an anxiety level that is already off the charts. Over 75% of Americans report being stressed in the last month. When employees are under stress, productivity, work performance and engagement levels decrease. It is incumbent upon our leadership to provide outlets for stress relief and options for employees to seek assistance in dealing with this extraordinary anxiety.

Don’t be afraid to show love. Real relationships allow us to get in touch with the human beings that work for us, recognize their needs and concerns and become one with them. This requires love. Not romantic love, that puppy love. Rather, the love we feel for another human being who we respect and admire. Show your team the love you have for them, their safety and the safety of their families.

Laugh a little. Employees want and deserve joy. This is why it is so crucial that we tap into laughter and humor in the workplace. Even in the most difficult of times, a little humor will allow us to share similar experiences, lighten the mood and build bonds across the organization. Leaders who laugh are more approachable, are seen as more confident and are more respected.

By and large, most employees are excited to help create an innovative, more vibrant and more inclusive public service and they are better equipped to do so than ever before. Think about it; our public servants are by now skilled in the virtual aspect of their job and they had already mastered the in-person components prior to the pandemic. Our heroes have not missed a beat.

Why not give them the chance to combine both virtual and in-person? But before we do, let’s give them a chance to be human. Let’s give them a chance to share their fears and their concerns. And then, let’s treat them to some gentleness, compassion and a little tolerance. It’s what they do for the citizens they serve. Let’s create a safe and joyful space where they want to be, not where they have to be.


Author: Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University. He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service. His new co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021.

[email protected]
Twitter: @DrPatrickMalone

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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