Mercy Quaye: Returning to work is not a return to normal

Photo of Mercy Quaye
Traffic on Connecticut streets is near its prepandemic peak as workers return to the office.

Traffic on Connecticut streets is near its prepandemic peak as workers return to the office.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

Employers should brace themselves for the traumatized workforce returning to offices this summer.

One thing a global pandemic did — for anyone caring enough to pay attention — was make us feel more connected, more empathetic to the issues impacting people unlike ourselves. In subtle ways, we became a softer people, if even just for the vanity-metric increases on social media. But as we all dust off our work clothes and start planning our commutes for the first time in months, we should expect that pieces of us were left in 2020 and may never come back.

Hiring during a pandemic was rough, to begin with. Convincing folks that our agency may be a startup but we’re secure was always coupled with a line or two about not guaranteeing anything. Those who left their jobs to join The Narrative Project risked a great deal doing so. But a noticeable scar came with those who had suffered a layoff and were unemployed for months prior to joining the team.

This isn’t unique to my staff and won’t be unique to anyone else’s.

Millions of people were unemployed for more than a comfortable amount of time last year. And regardless of how elected officials debated the difference between $1,400 stimulus checks and $600 ones, neither number was enough to ensure that the rent or mortgage could be paid on time, and that food could be purchased for the family with a reliable frequency.

Millions of people spent last year rotating bill payments to ensure just enough was paid to avoid shut-offs and disconnections.

Millions of people spent last year compiling setback after setback, struggling to get out of bed and battling situational depression each morning. But the thing about situational depression, it doesn’t care that the situation is temporary. It doesn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel and help you muster the strength and energy to visit Indeed and apply for another job, despite knowing the odds aren’t in your favor.

We may be returning to work, but we’re not returning to normal.

Trauma from scarcity isn’t something that subsides the moment you begin to experience abundance. After being in a scarcity mindset for a year, facing mounting insecurities from food to housing, employees are likely going to be returning to their desks far more fragile than they left them.

Folks taking on new jobs will likely feel the common pressures of needing to prove yourself within your standard probationary period. Only they’ll be battling uncommon stresses of lack of confidence, lack of willingness to take initiative, be creative and take risks because that all could lead to losing their job and plummeting back into the stresses of unemployment.

Employers have to change up the rules of engagement if we ever want to bounce back from the emotional beating 2020 dealt the unemployed.

We’ve got a narrow window in which we can rebuild a healthy and well workforce and it has to start with throwing away outdated management standards that were created for unremarkable years with unnotable events. We have to consider this a period of labor reconstruction and decide what kind of workforce we want — one that is healthy, well, creative, innovative and eager to come back to work every day after spending a year talking to a pet and waiting for a response; or one that dreads coming into the office and is too scared and fragile to risk being creative.

Last year’s workforce doesn’t exist anymore. All that’s left is a combination of people who never missed a beat and don’t understand the pain of financial insecurity, and those who are so familiar with it, it cripples them.

Starting with well-defined remote work, sick and time-off policies, employers should invest a considerable amount of time into examining their practices to ensure their teams are ready to work. Building out gentler expectations, increasing flexibility and ensuring your team feels supported and safe will only increase your business’ ability to innovate, be resilient, retain staff and achieve your goals. It makes good business sense to learn from last year and respond in ways that treat people like the invaluable and irreplaceable assets they are.

Or, we can try to return to business as usual with a wounded workforce and see what that gets us.

Mercy A. Quaye is founder and president of The Narrative Project, Connecticut’s only anti-racist public relations agency. She is a professor of digital journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, an alumna of Quinnipiac University, and a New Haven native. Got a story idea? Contact Mercy at @Mercy_WriteNow and SubtextWithMercy@gmail.com .