How Will We Work Now? Part Two

I sit beneath the stucco roof of my forty-story apartment complex, looking out at the park between my building and its sister building. This is where I go when I need to quiet my mind and take stock of the madness around me. I see the Essex Dry Cleaners, still closed with no sign of reopening; strangely, there‘s still a prominent black and white sign inside the door imploring people to wear a mask. Two small plants sit on a shelf to the right of the sign; while they don’t look particularly healthy, they must have been watered in the past few weeks or they would have died. The place has been here for almost twenty years, and I wonder where the owners have gone. Tens of thousands of customers have brought the stains from their lives in there to make them disappear…could it be gone without even a goodbye? 

Yesterday, I had my first barbershop haircut since March. My barber, Rudy, told me that he and two other shop owners are the only ones who’d reopened. The other half-dozen stores near him are gone, probably forever. My favorite Chelsea restaurant–Zagara Wine Bar, where I wrote for hours on weekend afternoons–is gone. The owner, Giuseppe, and one of his waiters, Nino, were my friends.  Will I ever see them again? 

Where have they all gone? The cafe owners, waitstaff, and counter staff? The smiles, thank yous, hot coffees, and almond croissants? I long for them now. I wish we could be in close proximity without fear. Not knowing if they are sick or well, or dead or alive, I grieve for them.

July 4th is coming soon.  I am heading east, to a place where pandemic-weary New Yorkers–those lucky enough to have the means to escape the city–hope for a respite from the weight of hypervigilance. I long for fresh breezes, the scent of the forest, and the rhythms of the ocean. Most of all, I look forward to a few days with few commitments…the indulgence of timeless afternoons. Arriving back in Montauk, my friend asks me a question.        

“How is it, being back in New York?”

“There is definitely a sense of the city coming back to life,” I reply. ”It’s still quite strange, though. Most people are tentative in their movements, and the streets are not nearly as busy as they were.” 

Considering this, she says, “So, you’re not that worried about getting to work?”

“No, I ride my bike almost everywhere.”

“Don’t you take the train from Montauk to Penn station twice a week?”

“Yes; and while trains are a bit more crowded, you can socially distance most of the time and almost everyone is wearing a mask. What I really worry about is the massive trauma we’ve experienced and will continue to.”

The most stressful part of my week is my bike ride through Manhattan. My route from 42nd Street and 12th Avenue to our client in the Flatiron District takes me through the once-bustling Hudson Yards into Chelsea. So many stores are boarded up, or have imposing FOR RENT signs where restaurants, nail salons, and pet stores once served us. Four months ago, traffic choked these thoroughfares: throngs of people going to and from work, shopping, eating out, going to movies and plays. The handful of people on the streets now look cautious, dazed, or tired. It doesn’t feel anything like the New York that’s been my home for most of 45 years. To my wounded heart, it feels like the sadness of a war zone; to my mind, it’s the ravage of collective trauma.

Collective trauma is the shared psychological upheaval of a group of people who’ve all experienced a catastrophic, life-changing event. These events affect how we think, feel, and act, often resulting in profound cultural shifts.

I’ve lived through two collective traumas in my lifetime: September 11th, 2001, and the Great Recession of 2008. My parents lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust. The destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon were directly witnessed by over 100,000 people, and seen on television and video by billions.  As devastating as the attacks were for those directly involved, the impact on most of the nation was indirect–yet in spite of the threat posed in the immediate aftermath, we as a nation discovered ways to heal and even learn from that collective trauma. Over time, the collective pain was less acute.

“What I really worry about is the massive trauma we’ve experienced and will continue to.”

I was asked to set up a crisis management program for Eurobrokers, a global trading firm that lost 62 people on 9/11. Our strategy was to relocate the company a half-mile from Ground Zero, and bring people into the new facility only when they were ready. Ninety-six percent of the surviving employees returned to work in the following three months; they needed to be together and support each other in order to heal. The company’s compassion, and the tight bonds of the community, provided a salve for employees’ psychic wounds. 

The COVID pandemic is a direct, ongoing, and amorphous threat to the vast majority of humans across the world. We still don’t know exactly how deadly the virus is, and precisely what the risk factors are–yet vast numbers of people seem to be denying or minimizing the threat, creating more risk to those they come into contact with.

So how will we work now, given that we are suffering from collective trauma from a still-developing threat?  First, we have to acknowledge the reality of the trauma we face at a societal and personal level. To do this, the owners and leaders of businesses need to create an environment that considers what employees need to do to function effectively and sustainably right now.  One thing it is essential that we understand: however long the threat from the virus lasts,  the trauma will last much longer. This means rethinking the social contract between the people who work for organizations and those who run them. Rather than imposing rules about when, how, and where to work, employers will have to collaborate with their people. Together, they will create guidelines that balance the need for strong business performance with the conditions employees need to feel safe and to manage their personal situations. Together, they can decide who works from home and when, and who is needed in the facility at specific times. Workplaces will need to be redesigned to fit the new norms of split shifts, varying degrees of remote work, and workplace safety. Employers will then have to evaluate the performance of both individuals and teams. Evaluating team performance will become more critical because, as we have seen, a team has to adapt together. In the new normal, the performance of an individual team member is highly dependent on both her teammates and the team’s leader.

Meanwhile, employees who can perform well in this new world will evaluate whether their employer is meeting their career and personal needs. Already, I’ve seen high-performing employees leave an organization because they didn’t want to risk returning to the workplace. Because of this depressed labor market, most employees will feel pressure to stay even if they’re dissatisfied with their new working conditions; but top performers are more valuable than ever, and they will have many choices. Remove one or more top performers from a well-integrated team, and team performance often slides dramatically. 

Just as radical innovation and resilience were hallmarks of the organizations who thrived through the 2008 recession, a new form of innovation and resilience will separate the winners and losers during the current crisis. The businesses we work with, and many others we hear about, have been remarkably empathetic and collaborative. Many people we work with ask, “how do you think this will turn out?”

“It depends…on what we do,” is how  I answer.

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