A Call For A More Human And Humane Return To Work During Covid-19

April 13, 2020
Marite Irvine

When we return to work post-quarantine, we will return as our changed selves. Perhaps more deeply connected with friends, family, colleagues and communities. Perhaps more reflective and appreciative. Or perhaps, with a sense of anxiety and uncertainty, knowing now how vulnerable and fragile we are when faced with such a force as this pandemic.

One thing is for sure: because of this shared experience of a world in crisis, we will emerge with a greater sense of what it truly means to be human.

There is a clear desire to keep the good that has come out of this crisis going. Even if the end of the lockdown is nowhere in sight, many are already asking: how can we carry this spirit through to our day to day lives when things go back to “normal”? Particularly at work where we expect to return to jobs (should we be so lucky) now redefined by the pressures of an economic recession and with that, the drive to recoup losses, restructure businesses and review commitments.

As tempting as it is to dive right into “jobs to be done”, businesses and organizations would be wise to think deliberately about the back-to-work experience for its people. After all, it will be a period of readjustment to old routines while still reeling from weeks of WFH and reflective confinement. Stories will want to be shared, questions will want to be asked, uncertainties will seek to be eased.

Approaching those first few days with empathy, a sense of shared humanity and a clarity of purpose can offer reassurance and transform the workplace. And as businesses are only as good as the people that drive it, that collective energy would be instrumental to thriving in the midst of a downturn.

So where to begin? Human-centered design disciplines provides us with ideas and tools on how to get conversations started.

1. Understand how the needs and values of people have shifted.


The pandemic has brought a wider consciousness to things we may have taken for granted: the importance of connection and community, the value of slowing down and simplifying, working with our hands as much as with our minds, the fragility of our systems and the undeniable strength of nature. 

All of these are transforming people’s perceptions and priorities in life and work. Mapping out these internal shifts and emergent needs provide a more nuanced understanding of how our core values are being reshaped. Post-quarantine, what does innovation and creativity mean to us? How have our perceptions of community changed? Have our sources of safety and security remained the same? Empathy maps and emotional journeys are great tools to get people engaged in this exercise. We can also apply this in (re)designing products and services for our customers and stakeholders.

2. Provide a Guiding Purpose that brings clarity and meaning to work in uncertain times.


Now, more than ever, people need something to believe in (and not just something to do). In the midst of a downturn, it is all the more important to provide a clear vision for working and for being. This is a good time to reflect on and, perhaps, reimagine your organization’s purpose. What is the mission that we set out to do for people within the company, for our audiences, our customers? Does it still hold true? How might we better serve as a North Star to navigate these uncertain times? In this new reality post-quarantine, how might your company, brand, product or service frame its role in the lives of your stakeholders? 

Before we answer these questions, we need to exercise our empathy muscles, take a moment to reconnect with the people within our work ecosystems, listen, engage and return to the above point of understanding. Clarifying that vision and reimagining missions is a powerful means to future-proofing work. As we will emerge from this period of lockdown with a wealth of provocative insights and ideas, envisioning techniques can be particularly effective in redesigning purpose that is at once resilient, brave and rooted in human instincts (vs. just business objectives).

3. Carry on the shared spirit of creativity and connection to drive impact at work and beyond. 

This quarantine period has unleashed such creativity and imagination as people find ways to navigate the limitations of this “new normal”. Online parties, digital collaborations, community action coordinated remotely. The spirit of imagination and innovation is truly alive in the face of adversity. 

One way of bringing forward the good that has come out of this crisis and activate these #lessonsinlockdown is to design experiences that bring them to life at work. Beyond the socials, consider designing rituals and programs that drive meaning and connection at work. They might center around themes like learning, personal development, mental health and strengthening relationships.

Take it a step further and design experiences around one of the bigger insights coming from quarantine: that when we slow down, the world begins to heal itself. Looking out of our windows, we see, smell, hear and feel the difference in our surroundings. How might we use our work community to carry this experience through beyond quarantine? If that sounds like an insurmountable task, remember that we don’t always have to think big, just think human. Simple rituals, mini behavioral shifts and individual actions when engaged creatively, can add up to a larger impact that may, ultimately, be for the good of people and our world.