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

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