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A Little Bit of Normal Please

man in mask leading staff meeting

This morning I continued my push for health and wellness by skipping the pancakes and opting instead for yogurt and berries for breakfast.

Speaking of the push for health and wellness … I was a conscientious mask-wearer for the entire duration of COVID-19 in California, never wavering in my support for the shutdown or the mask mandate, or any of the other guidelines. Though I got impatient toward the end, I fixed my sights on June 15, 2021, the date our governor said business was “getting back to normal.” I was ready. VERY ready.

I was eager to return to the office. I wanted to see my colleagues in person. I wanted to nurture the culture we have spent 20 years in business creating. We’d made some communication strides during the pandemic and had increased the amount of face time we all had with different stakeholders. Our San Diego and Los Angeles-based office teams met more often in 2020 than they ever had before. We’d hired people during the pandemic without having had an in-person interview.

We had overhauled our headquarters office to reflect new realities and my own desire to push the supervisory teams into the field more. Desks were set up to be hot desks (where you don’t own your space) and we installed lockers for personal stuff and added flexible standing desks. Everything was optimized, I thought, to getting back to in-person work. I saw the return to the office as the culmination of a tough year during which we’d emerged stronger than ever.

But I underestimated the reluctance of some staff to return to the office or to campus, and I underestimated how quickly our teams would be able to return to even a “new normal.” And I hadn’t come to grips with my own feelings about it.

I drafted voluntary vaccination guidelines for my company but decided not to mandate vaccines despite my own belief in them and the pressure from some of my senior staff to be more vocal about them. But I didn’t want to … yet. I reminded the team that we were going to abide by state, local, and district-level guidelines. They are the “higher power” we report to.

After only one month into the “getting back to normal,” the Delta variant surged. Then the masks went back on the day before our very first in-person managers meeting. So we were all wearing masks and I couldn’t read facial expressions and I couldn’t tell how my message was landing with the team. The team couldn’t see my own joy at seeing them. It was distressing because after holding Zoom meetings for over a year where I COULD see faces, here I was in person and I felt even more distant.

school children in backpack wearing masks

I was frustrated. Not just at the rules. But in my heart, frustrated by the people in the country who’d decided not to get vaccinated and (in my opinion) prolong this scourge.

Many communities that our company serves were the ones most resistant to getting the vaccination, and I empathized.

I was sad too. The new mask mandate meant we wouldn’t be welcoming our kids back to school with a big friendly smile and certainly no hugs. The grind of a weekly COVID test was back on the table for our school staff.

And despite all the work we’d done to welcome everyone back in person (only two days a week was my request), some of our staff had gotten so used to the time working at home that they no longer felt they needed to go back to the office all, confident that all their work could be done from the commute-free comfort of their home office. You don’t have to sell me on the benefits of distraction-free remote work; I enjoy it too. I believe my teams when they tell me that their staff was more productive working at home. But at what cost? More planned meetings but fewer serendipitous meetups? Higher productivity but lower esprit de corps? Fewer water cooler conversations but … fewer water cooler conversations.

I’m surely not saying something that hasn’t been said or exposing a truth that most of you aren’t experiencing. I’m just venting frustration, despite the fact that a year ago, in this very space, I wrote “COVID-19 has shined a light on the inequities in our public education system” and I suggested we had to blow up the concept of “normal.”

But, damn, today I’m thinking…can’t we get a little of the old normal for just a little while?

Post-script (9/14/2021)
If anyone knows how quickly things can change, it’s the readers of this blog in this space. Despite the ambivalence I describe in this blog, written just six weeks ago, I convened my leadership team and we decided to mandate vaccinations. This was after a heavy investment in incentives to get our staff vaccinated (we had a Vax Lottery where we gave away $20,000 for those who’d been vaccinated, which netted us about 160 newly vaxxed staffers). Our biggest clients, including LAUSD, announced their own mandates and we knew it was only a matter of time before other districts followed suit. We needed to be ready. We set the same deadline for our staff that LAUSD did: October 15, 2021, and we knew that the staffing crisis we were already feeling might only get worse.  But we had done everything we could possibly think of, using mostly carrots instead of sticks:  We did the Lottery; we paid for time off for staff to get vaccinated; we paid mileage and travel time to vaccination sites; we offered paid sick time for adverse reactions to the vaccine shot. But in the end, my team said, “It’s time.” In rapid succession our governor mandated vaccines for state employees and health workers and just two weeks after my own pronouncement, the President announced (with an exasperation I felt as well) that companies my size would be subject to the vaccination mandates too.

This isn’t the last major health crisis our company – or our country, for that matter – is likely to see. We learned a lot about operating our business under unusual circumstances and we made some permanent changes that will benefit us long term. As of this writing, I’m not sure what I’d do differently faced with the same circumstances, but when I come to terms with that, I’ll write again.

Author: @blupien

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