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Emerging from the Pandemic: Fostering Wellness and Connection

Sheltering-in-place brought many new sources of stress, but returning to the office will bring new stressors too. Leaders need to hone their listening skills and respond to fears from an uncertain workforce and public.

man wearing a face mask
TNS/Will Dickey/Florida Times-Union
July has always been a month of celebration for families across the nation. Summer is in the air and July 4th usually brings fireworks and cookouts. So many people dream of summer and cannot wait until their favorite, inspiring time of year arrives. I am reminded of a quote from an incredible American Olympic athlete, Wilma Rudolph.

“When the sun is shining, I can do anything; no mountain is too high, no trouble too difficult to overcome.”

This year, summer finds our world different than ever before. Summer 2020 will be remembered as the time when everyone was forced to think about other people by quarantining to keep themselves, loved ones and entire communities healthy and safe. Governments have been struggling to reopen their economies while attempting to protect the health of the people they serve. This is no easy task, especially when fighting an invisible enemy that lacks normal patterns or any kind of predictability. We, at the Center for Digital Government, have been working with the entire government community to ensure that the right tools end up in the right hands to help government through this time. Recently, we released the Next Normal Resource Guide to help government technologists navigate the 30-, 60- and 90-day timeframes when they are ready to emerge from the pandemic. The decisions made here will impact the future of your ability to deliver technologies effectively. 

It is one thing to plan for priorities and technologies but quite another to plan for the impact on people. No person has been left unaffected by this crisis. Government IT staff have been heroes – they stepped up, took on unprecedented challenges and exceeded expectations. Our focus today is on what your team will need to get the work done in the future. Much has been written regarding the lightning speed at which governments were forced to enable their employees to work remotely. Recent CDG research showed that more than 57 percent of government employees, senior management and up, were pushed out of the office to work remotely and 37 percent are already back in their physical offices. The percentages are much higher for teams in general. There were technology, facility, accessibility, and productivity issues that permeated organizations to such an extent that many struggled to maintain positive connections to their work and organizational leadership. As workforces emerge from the crisis, there will be concerns about returning to physical locations and the risks of catching the virus. There will be concerns about adversely impacted budgets that could result in layoffs or reductions in compensation. One thing is for sure, government technology people are resilient. They have fought off cybersecurity attacks, natural disasters, and most recently, communicating during social unrest. This is yet another fight that government will figure out and marshal through with flying colors. 

But how will governments manage the stress the next normal of work will create for their teams? The physical workspaces are changing fast with plexiglass barriers being placed between staff and the public, and in many cases, between team members themselves. Anyone entering public buildings, including staff, will be subject to temperature checks and mask requirements. This will create stress in its own right but these types of protocols are needed to provide a sense of security for staff and the public. Governments will need to ramp up their wellness programs to preserve the ability to stay physically and mentally healthy. Wellness programs have proven to be a positive experience for employees, many of whom enjoy incentivized health screenings. This should not change post-pandemic; if anything, more innovative efforts will be needed to maintain forward momentum. Most team members have endured stresses no one could have previously imagined: prolonged quarantine in which they had to quickly become sole providers of education, physical health, mental health, care for the elderly, all while still performing their duties for the citizens they serve.  

Leaders are judged on their ability to lead their teams through a crisis. One of the most important traits of a leader to manage through this next normal is to be able to listen. And listening now requires action – you must reach out in the virtual world to open up channels for continuous communication. Listen to your team’s concerns and provide an open, inclusive discussion forum that involves as many as possible to help stay connected and make tough decisions. Listen to the concerns of the public when crafting new processes to deliver services. Listen to your peers across the country that each bring different knowledge skills to a problem, like working through a crisis like a hurricane or a wildfire. Listen to as many people as possible. We found a quote from Dean Jackson that sums up the art of listening in a very succinct way. 

“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.”

You will overcome this crisis as you have so many times in the past with other serious world events. You will find the right way to serve your citizens while managing the risk to your team. Public service today is more important than ever and we are here to help. Stay safe and be well!