Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 3;   January 20, 2021:

Anticipating Absence: Quarantine and Isolation


When the pandemic compels some knowledge workers to quarantine or isolate, we tend to treat them as if they were totally unavailable. But if they're willing and able to work, even part-time, they might be able to continue to contribute. To make this happen, work out conditions in advance.
A home office

A home office

When exposure to COVID — or worse, actually contracting COVID — compels knowledge workers to quarantine or isolate, colleagues and supervisors have a tendency to begin immediately to treat their exposed or ill colleagues as if they've suddenly become totally unavailable. It's almost as if we assume, without evidence, that anyone quarantined or isolated must have been hospitalized and intubated.

In some cases, this behavior can severely disrupt operations. In some cases, it's also avoidable.

Colleagues who are quarantined or isolated are often able to work remotely, especially if they're quarantined and not actually taken ill. And many of those who are ill are not severely ill. They might not be able to work full time, but as they recover, working remotely part-time can actually aid in their recovery. In some cases, it's best for the quarantined and the isolated, on the one hand, and for the organization on the other, to arrange for those affected to work remotely to whatever extent they're willing and able.

Knowledge workers aren't easily replaced. As I've noted in previous posts, finding people with the relevant skills and experience might be possible. But unless they also have intimate knowledge of the current state of the work, they can't just pick up where the absent individual left off. For this reason, it's useful to make arrangements, if possible, for the quarantined or isolated individuals to continue to contribute to the extent they can. And that's where the trouble begins.

The irony of quarantine and isolation

The irony is this: after our colleagues enter quarantine or isolation, several cultural norms tend to create difficulties for all concerned as they try to negotiate how and to what extent our quarantined or isolated colleagues might be able to work remotely. To avoid this problem, we need to carry out these negotiations in advance. We need to prepare for quarantine and isolation. If we prepare, everyone benefits.

In what follows, Colleagues who are quarantined
or isolated are often able to
work remotely, especially if
they're quarantined and
not actually taken ill
I describe three cultural norms that make these negotiations difficult after the person in question enters quarantine or isolation. I use the word Alpha to refer to the person who is Absent due to quarantine or isolation. By a coin flip I assigned Alpha female gender.

Concern for Alpha's wellbeing
Out of a concern for her health, colleagues still reporting for work might be reluctant to contact Alpha. Their concern could be that if they send her email or contact her by phone, they might be interfering with her recovery.
In a healthy organizational culture, we express our concern for each other by leaving space for healing from illness. If Alpha is in quarantine, she might not be ill at all. But if she is ill, and the illness is mild enough, healing might be even easier if Alpha can continue to contribute. Every case is different, and we all benefit from flexible respect.
Before any quarantine or isolation, come to an agreement about how to negotiate Alpha's level of contribution. If quarantine or isolation has already begun, and preparatory negotiations did not take place, good friends of Alpha might still be able and willing to contact Alpha to work something out.
Organizational policy
Policies devised outside the pandemic context might work well in the nonpandemic context. But some policies regarding paid leave require that people receiving that benefit not perform duties of any kind.
In this pandemic, policies must allow for quarantine and isolation. These tactics — quarantine and isolation — are necessary tools for managing contagion. And some people in quarantine or isolation are able to work remotely, in some cases, at less than full time. Review paid leave policies to ensure that people can continue to contribute if they are willing and able, while still receiving the benefit of paid leave.
Reluctance to offend
Before Alpha was first quarantined or isolated, she was working on a project or projects that she cared about. That's the nature of knowledge work. In many knowledge work cultures, picking up the project of a colleague without that colleague's permission is offensive. Even seeking permission can seem like a norm violation.
Certainly there are those who would like to see their work continued while they are on leave if qualified people are available to carry it on. They might even be eager to assist in whatever way they can from quarantine or isolation. And especially if the work in question is an organizational priority, we need a way to enable discussing options for carrying on.
Conducting such discussions after the individual takes leave risks offense. It can seem predatory, especially if there is a history of rivalry or acrimony between Alpha and the people who would be carrying on her work. To manage this risk, conduct discussions in advance of any illness or quarantine, as part of a risk management conversation.

Last words

To effectively adapt to a world that includes some people in quarantine or isolation, working around cultural norms is necessary but not sufficient. We must also examine our approaches to providing the infrastructure people need to work from home. It has been common until now to rely on employees' own resources to provide digital access to the workplace from home. This practice is unfair to employees, of course, but it also leads to uneven quality of digital connections. Employers must finally acknowledge that they must be more proactive about supporting employees' digital access to the workplace from their homes. When they do so all will benefit, including the employer, who undoubtedly will benefit most. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Cost Concerns: Comparisons  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The breech plug of one of the nine 16-inch guns of the U.S.S. MissouriMore Limitations of the Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower Matrix is useful for distinguishing which tasks deserve attention and in what order. It helps us by removing perceptual distortion about what matters most. But it can't help as much with some kinds of perceptual distortion.
Illustrating the concept of local maximumFalse Summits: II
When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.
Rick Piltz, former senior associate in the U.S. Climate Change Science ProgramTen Approaches to Managing Project Risks: I
Risk management usually entails coping with losses if they do occur. Here's Part I of a concise summary of the options for managing risk.
A piece of chocolate cakeEgo Depletion and Priority Setting
Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.
John Frank Stevens, who conceived the design and method of construction of the Panama CanalPower Distance and Risk
Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and to question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk.

See also Project Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The iconic image of cyber code, as popularized in the film The MatrixComing January 26: Cyber Rumors in Organizations
Rumor management practices in organizations haven't kept up with rumor propagation technology. Rumors that propagate by digital means — cyber rumors — have longer lifetimes, spread faster, are more credible, and are better able to reinforce each other. Available here and by RSS on January 26.
Children playing a computer gameAnd on February 2: The Risk of Astonishing Success
When we experience success, we're more likely to develop overconfidence. And when the success is so extreme as to induce astonishment, we become even more vulnerable to overconfidence. It's a real risk of success that must be managed. Available here and by RSS on February 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.