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 illI 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.
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 Top Next Issue
Are 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 welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.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.
This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.
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.
More articles on Project Management:
- Are You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?
- When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty
that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of
the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.
- The Politics of the Critical Path: I
- The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest
completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political
- Personnel-Sensitive Risks: I
- Some risks and the plans for managing them are personnel-sensitive in the sense that disclosure can
harm the enterprise or its people. Since most risk management plans are available to a broad internal
audience, personnel-sensitive risks cannot be managed in the customary way. Why not?
- Projects as Proxy Targets: I
- Some projects have detractors so determined to prevent project success that there's very little they
won't do to create conditions for failure. Here's Part I of a catalog of tactics they use.
- Lessons Not Learned: II
- The planning fallacy is a cognitive bias that causes us to underestimate the cost and effort involved
in projects large and small. Efforts to limit its effects are more effective when they're guided by
interactions with other cognitive biases.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 6: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III
- Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are seven behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers use them to control conversations. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
- And on December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways requires, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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