What are you keeping?

Closeup on some white and purple crocuses in Rachel's front yard

About a year, ago, I did a little Q&A on Instagram to try to understand what folks who were being pushed into remote work were feeling most worried about. At that point, we were still imagining a shutdown that might last two or three weeks, and I can’t help but laugh at the “don’t worry about sustainability” advice I was giving then.

Now, a year in, with vaccine distribution starting to take hold, the world is starting to shade toward reopening. Maybe that will happen in a few months, maybe next year, maybe longer – you can see how hesitant I am to even imagine a world where more people are in the same physical place at once – but in order for it to happen successfully within our organizations, we need to start imagining what that possible world should look like.

Even for those of us who worked remotely long before 2020 and expect to stay that way long after, the last year has shifted the way that work fits into our lives: families are around while we’re working; illness, grief, and anxiety are increasingly major characters in our story; many of the things we used to do to get ourselves out of the house and recharge from work stress are inaccessible.

And it’s not just a question of whether we’re working remotely or in person. For so, so many, the substance of what we do every day has shifted radically. Jobs that sustained us, felt core to our identities, or fed our sense of independence and self-worth by allowing us to pay our bills and put food on the table, disappeared. Our relationship to work changed, not just outwardly or practically, but emotionally. I’ve talked with friends and colleagues who have felt that change in both positive and negative ways – often at the same time – and for me, at least, the jury is still out on whether on the whole, that change is for the better.

Amid so much change, many of us are spending our time dreaming about the things we get to go back to. At work, maybe that’s a return to seeing other humans in an office, getting to make art together, or creating space for serendipitous conversations. But I also think there’s value in thinking about the ways in which the difficulty of the last year have created space for new ways of approaching work and collaboration (and, of course, management) that deserve to be part of our next “normal.” Here are a few of the things I hope carry through (and if you aren’t doing these yet at your organization, it’s not too late to start):

Intentional connection.

Work doesn’t have to serve a community-building purpose in our lives. You don’t have to be there to make friends. But in a mission-driven organization, the sense of common purpose does tend to connect us to one another, and that can help us get through moments when collaboration is difficult or we’ve encountered a major challenge. The last year has forced us to create those connections intentionally if we want them to strengthen our teams. Some have done that by structuring in more regular 1:1 meetings or team connections; some by starting book clubs in a Slack channel; some by building a few minutes into the start of a meeting for everyone to get water or a snack, check on the kid doing virtual classswork, or just lie on the floor for a minute (goodness knows I’ve done my share of that). What if we kept those moments there when not everyone is operating in crisis mode all day every day?

Centering local communities.

Rallying around local businesses and organizations, the growth of mutual aid groups, and yes, endless walks around the neighborhood, have managed to help me feel rooted in my local community even as I feel disconnected from the ways that I’m accustomed to interacting with it. For me, it feels important to continue to center the people and organizations that keep me grounded in a sense of belonging once travel and more expansive interactions become possible again.

Asking for help.

A great many of us have had to let go of the fear of asking for help in the last year. We needed help applying for unemployment insurance (a nightmare even when the system isn’t wildly overloaded and laws aren’t frantically changing); looking for new jobs, prepping for interviews, and polishing up infinite resumes and cover letters; trying to keep programming afloat with reduced staff capacity; understanding new rules about payroll loans and sick time… the list is literally endless.

The point is, asking for help has been a critical part of getting us all through the last year, and that’s been really scary. There’s no room in the After Times to let that fear drive our actions.

We’re in this together.

If you’re at an organization that isn’t facilitating intentional connection, or that isn’t giving space for employees to ground themselves in a community where they can find belonging, or that discourages asking for help: know that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can do better, and you deserve better.

And if you hold power at one of those organizations, you owe it to the people who support your work to make progress on these things, because we won’t heal without them – in person or remotely.

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