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opinion

Eileen Dooley is a principal and executive coach in the leadership practice of Odgers Berndtson, a global executive search and leadership advisory firm.

The summer of 2020 will be forever been known as the Pandemic Summer. Whatever festival, special event or other large gathering we were going to is gone. Travel between provinces is limited, and travel outside the country is still discouraged at best.

Work is looking a lot different, too, as families may be struggling with the unemployment of a major income earner, or perhaps there are (still) children at home, as many camps are either cancelled or limited in capacity. Those who are working are doing so with significant anxiety about what the next day is going to bring, both professionally and personally. July will look pretty similar to April, but with better weather and a few permissible services.

All in all, it is not going to be the carefree, lackadaisical summer we all usually look forward to. Employers, however, can help their work force through this so the summer can feel like a summer. A few subtle suggestions:

  • This goes without saying but pay them, regardless of when they work, rather than offer (or strongly encourage) them to take unpaid time off to tend to matters at home. Many are struggling with a full household, and limited access or ability to work elsewhere.

They may not be able to work the regular, consistent hours they normally would during the summer, especially if children are home rather than camp or daycare. They are, however, working and making the best of a situation nobody asked for. Companies should support employees by encouraging them to work when they can, and avoid offering them unpaid time off, which adds additional stress to an already stressful time.

  • For companies that had to restructure, which may have included laying off or temporarily laying off employees, keep the communication lines open. Employees want to know if their colleagues are coming back, and furloughed employees want to know their status as soon as possible.

And, if you’re an employer who has decided that you can’t bring people back from temporary layoff, don’t leave them in limbo. It’s better to make their situation clear, so that they can start to move on to a new role, and get the necessary transition supports that this entails.

  • Be reasonable when it comes to working the “regular day.” While it is important for employees to commit to several hours in the work week, how that time is divided up needs to have a degree of flexibility. I have heard stories about how companies are expecting the same number of hours in the traditional 9-to-5 time span, complete with the same focus and effort as prepandemic days. This is unreasonable given the environment people are working in (makeshift home office quarters), daily distractions of people and pets being present, as well as the overall frustration of the situation.

The added expectation of “business as usual” is unrealistic, as the new “usual” is very, very different. In prior times, the inevitable interruptions of the workday, such as desk-side discussions and coffee with colleagues were part of working life. The interruptions are still there, just in a different form.

  • Encourage employees to take vacation time, even if it does not seem like a traditional vacation. They may be reluctant to request the time, fearing stigma of not being busy enough. It may also not be top of mind with everything going on. Now more than ever, employees need to take care of their mental health, which means stepping away and recharging.

Although many plans have been disrupted by continuing restrictions, employees should be encouraged to take some form of a vacation. In addition, there is also the very pragmatic reason that companies do not want a year of vacation time saved up, per employee. It poses a liability should weeks or months of unused vacation begin to stack up.

A few months ago, I wrote about how we treat each other during this pandemic will define us as a generation. The summer poses an opportunity for employers to demonstrate care and compassion during a time that many employees look forward to but are hesitant or unwilling to fully embrace this year. By taking the lead, creating a positive space and encouragement, employers can be the outreached hand that brings the employee to embrace the Pandemic Summer.

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