A couple of months into my last co-op term, the world was hit by a global pandemic. Lots of things changed, including our job routines.
My spring 2020 co-op was with the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue as a Project Assistant. The Centre for Dialogue was founded in 2000 and acts as a hub for dialogue and engagement initiatives. They create space for conversations between diverse stakeholders and value mutual curiosity and collaborative inquiry over adversarial approaches. The Centre often collaborates with and across SFU departments and also runs the undergraduate Semester in Dialogue program.
On March 11, 2020, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. With this news came many unprecedented changes to people’s lives, including their jobs. I worked remotely during this time, and I learned, unlearned, and affirmed some things about working during a crisis.
1. Give Each Other a Sense of Permission to Not be as Productive
There are tons of reasons why people may not be at their full productivity every day – this is true in general, but especially during a pandemic or crisis. It takes a lot of energy to adjust to a new schedule and a new sense of normal. Given these changes, people may not have the spaces, the people, and the things they need to take care of themselves – let alone be at their maximum productivity at work. I am thankful to work in an environment that acknowledges this and is supportive of people’s changing realities. My work experience made it clearer how this isn’t the case in many environments elsewhere, and how the pressures to be productive – even during crisis – are so embedded in our society’s hustle culture and the systems that feed this culture. We can unlearn this by building cultures that decenter productivity as our main goal.
2. It’s Okay for your Work to Pivot
COVID has prompted many workplaces to reflect on how their work can change to be more responsive to emergent needs. At my workplace, this pandemic encouraged our teams to think about how our work can stay relevant and supportive of our communities during this time. An example of how we pivoted our work is how we collaborated across teams to create a site called wegotchu.ca, to support young people under 30 to navigate social and health needs amidst COVID. We also discussed how we pivot our work in a way that supports our changing work and life routines. For example, we embraced having asynchronous work hours amongst team members – because not everyone on our work teams will work a conventional 9-5 during this time. To honour this asynchronous reality, we also evolved and made more flexible, our expectations for when our colleagues return our emails or messages. And we started co-creating deadlines within teams to encourage openness about our personal and professional capacity at work.
3. Our Colleagues and Friends can Share Things on Their Own Terms
There are lots of reasons people may need more compassion and generosity at work during this time. People may not feel safe or supported in their home environment; due to physical distancing, they may now lack the spaces they need for social and other types of support; or they may be in a position to caretake for others. Regardless of the reason, our colleagues and friends don’t owe us their stories to justify their needs. If folks need more flexibility around a work-related expectation during this time of crisis, we shouldn’t make them feel burdened with the labour of telling us their personal stories to justify their needs. My supportive workplace has affirmed for me the importance of supporting people’s agency to tell their stories on their own terms. In order to do this, it’s important to create a culture of generous trust where people feel safe and heard.
4. To Have a Safe and Supportive Job Now is a Privilege
To be able to work remotely or rely on an income, and practice physical distancing during this time are huge privileges. The example of my unique privilege being able to work safely and remotely during this crisis makes it clear how many aren’t afforded this sense of safety – and how something as “neutral” as a pandemic affects people disproportionately. Although COVID-19 doesn’t know, for instance, if a person is poor, young, immunocompromised, or a migrant, existing systems do know this, and they already create systems of inequity. This means that new crises like COVID will deepen these differences – the luxury of remote and safe work is just one example. Working during this time has affirmed the importance of putting an equity lens on the changing work we do and our personal reflections about our positionalities during crisis.
For me, lots of these things felt more prominent during this time of change – feeling okay not being productive all the time, extending more generous flexibility with each other, or embracing changes to structure at work - this pandemic made these things feel extra true, but it doesn’t take a pandemic to keep them true. Given this, how do we reimagine the communities we’re a part of, including work communities, to be more flexible and caring to people’s different lived realities? This term made me think about how we reimagine and how we build generous communities of care around us – including at work.
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