Alexandra Suchman

Mar 30, 2020

5 min read

We Knew Our Workplaces Were Broken, But COVID-19 Is Showing Us Just How Bad It Got

Image by Cara Shelton from Pixabay

If you are anything like me, you’re probably having a hard time wrapping your head around the myriad ways covid-19 is affecting our lives. I know I’m struggling to figure out what the new (hopefully very temporary) “normal” will be, as we all try to balance family, health and safety, personal wellness, and work.

I keep flashing back to the more personal crisis I experienced a few years ago that forced me to do some serious exploration into my core values and true self. That rough period of my life made me realize that my true passion and superpower is helping others gain clarity and confidence in their work through organization and strategy. However, I can only feel truly successful in my work if I have consistent, deliberate safeguards to prevent my professional-life from taking over my personal life. My business was created around my own specific needs for structure and balance, and prioritize balance and overall well-being over pure efficiency and profit. My performance and revenue goals take into consideration that:

  • I will have some days when I don’t feel well or will be struggling with depression.
  • I will need to take time off for vacations and for unexpected family emergencies.
  • I am not willing to work long days or over weekends unless absolutely necessary.
  • I need time to do things I love, like hike, cook, dance, and spend time with friends and family.

Since then, I’ve been happier, less stressed, and doing the best work of my life. But I’m now realizing that the circumstances that led to my break down are everywhere, and reflect a workplace philosophy that is inhumane and unsustainable.

The covid-19 crisis has pulled the wool off our eyes over just how broken our workplaces have become.

A recent article in the Washington Post describes the effects of the unrelenting obsession with maximizing efficiency that has dominated our economy over the last 40 years. The article makes an extremely convincing case that the obsession with maximizing efficiency and profits left us totally unprepared to face a sudden public health crisis like covid-19. Essentially, as writer Roger Martin explains, it boils down to 3 points:

The reason the U.S has such a shortage of medical equipment, tests, emergency response plans, and so on is “because it wasn’t efficient to have mass production of these items in the United States, and we’ve come to believe that stockpiling supplies is wasteful.”

Over the last month, it’s become clear that the economic philosophy valuing efficiency above all else has not only damaged production and supply chains, it’s forced employers to look at people not as humans, but as production agents. The vast majority of workplaces are set up in a way that takes advantage of the very characteristics that make humans amazing — our creativity, persistence, loyalty, and generosity. The assets that have led to every amazing discovery, innovation, and work of art ever are the same characteristics that make us vulnerable. And vulnerability is inefficient.

Employers have invested a lot in the aspects of work that can be made more efficient, but much less on developing people and encourage employees to thrive as people. Despite an increase in talk about workplace culture, there appears to be very little action to develop structure to not only to protect the balance between work like and personal life, but to ensure people can have a healthy and full personal life at all!

Want examples?

  • Most workplaces lack even the most basic processes and plans in place to enable us to go on vacation in peace: a third of employees don’t use the vacation time they’ve earned because they feel too guilty, discouraged by their boss, or have too much work to take time off.
  • We know these life events happen to everyone, yet most workplaces experience immediate bottlenecks and backlogs when even one person is out.
  • Often, the most capable and successful employees are often “rewarded” by being taken for granted and overworked, sometimes with additional compensation, but more often without.

The default 21st century American workplace seems incapable of recognizing how vulnerable we all are — not just to threats to our physical health, but to disruptions to our emotional, mental, and social well-being as well. In wearing down our individual health and resilience, we’ve also work down the collective resilience. And we are now seeing what that looks like.

What can we do about it?

No workplace can survive without people: all the computers, robots, and automations in the world can’t change that. So I say we stop focusing on maximizing efficiency and instead focus on preventing and minimizing pain and frustration!

This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about workplace operations. I know it sounds boring and tedious, but what operations really refers to are the processes, policies, and mechanism in place to set people up for success.

This can mean many things:

  • Some overlap and redundancy in workload so individuals can take worry-free vacations AND teams don’t suffer bottlenecks when people have to take leave.
  • Monitoring everyone’s workload to make sure that people aren’t being overloaded, that everyone is pulling their weight, and work is fairly distributed.
  • Offering professional development, mentoring, and training so people can build new skills and move into new roles so they stay challenges and engaged.
  • Creating systems and processes to make tedious and repetitive tasks less burdensome.
  • Investing in training and support for managers to they feel confident handling the challenges and problems that come their way.
  • Paying close attention to employee morale, and work to actively solicit and respond to feedback.
  • Ensuring enough paid time off for vacation, sick leave, family care, mental health days, etc.

Sure, proactivity and planning certainly improve the bottom time in the best of times, but more importantly, they protect us from the pressure, guilt, and panic during the bad times.

If people succeed in their work, companies and organizations can meet their goals. It’s that simple.

Can we collectively decide to be a part of the solution?