Covid-19 and the welcome collapse of “professionalism”

The way we work now.
The way we work now.
Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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As the last few weeks of our new shared reality have unfolded, anxiety, fear, uncertainty—emotions that have always been under the surface at an individual level—have entered the collective narrative. Organizations are now grappling with the gravitational pull of shared anxiety; most employers see managing staff unease as their biggest challenge during the coronavirus crisis.

We should allow ourselves a modicum of grace here, if only because managing the human experience in the workplace is still just a nascent concept.

Until recently, the predominant advice to managing your emotions at work was: Don’t have them. We accepted the term “professionalism” as useful shorthand for positive traits like accountability, integrity, and reliability, and then we weaponized it, whether as a tool of conformity (dress appropriately, women) or as a filtering mechanism for social status (he wasn’t a “culture fit;” don’t hire him). Ultimately, we allowed the guise of professionalism to eclipse the emotional experience of being human at work.

Turns out, pretending we aren’t human simply doesn’t work in times when we are forced to confront our very human fragility. We must, as Brene Brown has insisted, “either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.”

“Don’t mind my son!” a co-worker laughed as his toddler climbed across his lap on our video call. I didn’t mind. My colleague was wearing sweatpants and so was I. Any illusion we used to propagate about “balance,” telling both our work and our families that they are the top priority and acting like the two are entirely separate forces in our lives, has ended abruptly. The affair we were having from our life with our work and vice versa has just been exposed.

The glimmer of hope I am clinging to in trying times is that the pretending ends for good, that this global crisis liberates us from our post-industrial hangover of humans as resources, as pieces of the organizational machine, without families or feelings.

Rates of emotional metabolism

Over the last few weeks, I’ve navigated my own emotional response to the pandemic while attempting to model the leadership I believe is important in times like these: empathetic, decisive, present. Holding that complexity has been harder than I imagined. In moments when I know I need to move forward, I feel frozen. In moments when I should pause, I feel an urgency to be productive and participate, as if silence means I’ll somehow disappear. I negotiate these tensions not once but daily, all the while trying to calibrate the guidance and support I offer to others.

Even in a shared experience, each person has a different emotional metabolism: the ability to process emotion, understand that emotional response, and take one step forward. Each organization has its own emotional metabolism, too. As the rate of change accelerates and yet time seems to slow down (a day feels like a week now and a month feels like a year), organizations are grappling with how to keep pace and survive while the very resources on which they depend, human beings, have less emotional bandwidth. We expect people to emotionally metabolize faster than ever before and all at the same speed. Neither of those two things are possible.

All the advice flooding my inbox about how to lead in times of uncertainty seems to miss the pain point: We need to be better listeners. We’re obsessed with taking action in a society obsessed with productivity as worth.

Professionalism, redefined

The premonitions that have resonated most with me in these unprecedented times are ones Mark Cuban’s: that the way companies treat their employees in times like these will be their defining feature in the coming months and years.

In moments like this, being thoughtful about company culture usually takes a backseat, but the truth is it’s more important than ever. Moving forward in this moment requires principles and priorities. It requires us to return to our organizational DNA and ask ourselves hard questions about how our beliefs should translate to our behaviors.

What does transparency really mean in times like these? What does collaboration really mean in times like these? The decisions we make now will be encoded in our organizational psyche for the months and years that follow.

The strength of the relationships between co-workers—the community—will shape your agility. The strength of your leaders—their humanity—will shape your culture. The strength of your organization’s culture—your integrity—will shape your resiliency.  We know that all of these things are improved upon when we bring what makes us human into the workplace instead of leaving it at home.

As we redefine what it means to be “professional,” we will usher in an era of stronger relationships, more resilient individuals, and more meaningful work.

Kit Krugman is head of organization and culture design at co:collective, a strategy and innovation consultancy based in New York.