Will I Ever Feel Safe Again?

Chapter One: Hugs

Imagine standing on a street corner wearing a t-shirt that reads “Free Hugs.”

  • In 2019 it might have gotten you a few strange looks, probably a lot of return hugs, and possibly a touching viral YouTube video.
  • In 2020 you might have been arrested.
  • In mid-2021 you will still get strange looks, inquiries as to your vaccination status, and possibly a few takers… while others stand six feet away silently weeping into their masks.

Oh, we so miss hugs!

Last week my wife and I met with a group of friends – all of us old enough to have gotten vaccinated – for dinner. We sat outside and still brought our own food and drinks, but for the first time in 16 months we hugged each other.

It was glorious AND it felt dangerous. We immediately used hand sanitizer. Because habit.

Chapter Two: How Do You Value a Hug?

One of my professional associations is planning to return to on-ground programming in June. It will be a completely outdoor event on a walking trail, masks and distancing still part of the protocol. In our May meeting I jokingly typed into the Chat box: “Jim Smith will be giving away free vaccinated hugs at the June meeting!”

Responses came fast. Some people claimed their spot in the line already. Someone suggested that I could have charged for hugs as a fundraiser for the chapter.

Which led to a short discussion around “how do you value a hug?”

To borrow a tagline from MasterCard: “It’s Priceless!”

Chapter Three: I Have Much to Unlearn

For the past 440+ days (not that I’m counting, mind you) I’ve reprogrammed my wildly extraverted, hugging self to stay home, redefine handshakes as “a way to transmit disease,” and keep a narrow, no-touch profile on my rare trips into the public space.

Masks mean safety.

Last weekend my son-in-law was super-excited when he landed his company’s private suite for the Cleveland-Minnesota baseball game, and it was fireworks night! It felt like a safe enough thing to do – the adults in our household are vaccinated and the stadium is still restricted to 40% of capacity. We left home early to avoid crowds. Wore our masks. All good.

But the restrictions meant reduced service options, so we had to venture onto the stadium concourse to obtain food and drinks. It was just a few days after the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lifted their mask mandate. As we walked around, perhaps half the people we passed were NOT masked.

What?! There was no way to tell anyone’s status. Are you vaccinated, not yet, or an anti-vaxxer? Are you not wearing a mask because you’re immune or because you’re making a political statement? Are you being responsible or irresponsible? No way to tell who might be carrying COVID, and we’ve got four unvaccinated kids with us.

My logical brain was saying, “just follow the protocols, we’ll be fine.” My lizard brain was screaming, “what’s wrong with these people?”

I know, I know. It was all about me, but I was a nervous wreck. By the time we got back to the suite, I was literally shaking with anxiety and anger. It took until the fourth inning before my headache eased.

I will have much to Unlearn and Relearn about being safe in the public space again.

Chapter Four: How Are You? Really.

I was leading a tele-class which included students in India, a country currently flattened by COVID. One of the participants observed, “Asking ‘How are you?’ used to be a social nicety. Now it’s a real question. How ARE you? Really?” And how are your family members, your friends, your loved ones? Have you lost anyone? Are you safe?

Many people I know have lost friends and family members to the pandemic. My doctor-daughter has brought home stories that remind us that viruses don’t discriminate in any way based on who you are or how much you earn or whether you have health insurance or whether you “believe” in science. A virus’ only concern is replicating itself. A virus does not care.

It’s up to people to care.

Chapter Five: Will It Be Safe?

Do you know the term, psychological safety? If you hold a leadership role, you should. It’s been a trending topic for the past couple years as harassment and discrimination scandals (e.g., #MeToo, #BLM) in both the private and public sectors have shed light on the enormous personal courage it takes to speak up against the dominant organizational culture.

Psychological safety is defined by Timothy Clark in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety as “an environment of protected vulnerability and a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo… all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.”  (Source: Forbes.com. Search Psychological Safety at work or similar phrases to learn more)

Psychological safety is a critical element in building effective teams — without safety, there cannot be trust, and without trust, true teamwork is impossible. Period.

What’s that got to do with COVID? Three words: Return to Work.

Manufacturing firms and grocery stores and healthcare institutions have not had the option to work from home. Such organizations had to quickly figure out how to create workplaces that allowed people to show up for work without A) catching the virus, or B) carrying the virus home to vulnerable family members. Safety came first, and these employers quickly learned that when such a primal need is not addressed, people WILL quit or disconnect.

Meanwhile, the rest of us have spent a lot of time in our pandemic pods in Work From Home mode. But that will end. Organizational leaders are going to have to step carefully into a new landscape where some of the power has shifted to employees.

I recently spoke with a client who wants to continue working from home. She feels safer there, plus she’s learned in the past year how much she has missed with her kids, and she wants to build a hybrid office/virtual schedule that keeps balance in her life. BUT (big but!) she senses her direct manager will return to expecting “face time” (to be considered a “good” employee, you gotta show your face, put in the time). My client is more than a little fearful that if she pushes back, her career prospects may diminish.

We all know the mantra, “actions speak louder than words.” If a leader simply says, “this is the deal, everyone back to work,” they will risk losing people who do not yet feel physically safe. If they say, “create your own hybrid,” but then say No to requests or don’t walk the talk or diminish anyone who wants accommodation, they risk breaking the trust connection with the company.

So, what’s the best way to do this? Hell, I don’t know! We are building this plane while it’s already in the air.

But one thing I deeply believe is that any leader who creates inclusive conversations around return to work has the opportunity to turn this enormous challenge into a team-building and trust-building activity.

Remember, Leadership is not about a title: Anyone can be a leader who steps out of their own comfort zone to listen deeply, consider other perspectives, and invite others to solve problems together.