How to retain – or regain – a sense of community during a pandemic

In the past few weeks I’ve heard some distressing comments from former colleagues, younger colleagues who have been working through the strains and constraints of COVID.  The COVID work world, complete with rapidly switching to Zoom, teaching by Zoom, having meetings only by Zoom, and communicating with colleagues and/or students electronically night and day, non-stop.  The observations I’ve heard include sadness at the loss of community and the feeling of no longer being appreciated.  I can’t help but think that this rings true for many, many people working in a vast array of occupations, including healthcare and education at all levels, but so much more.

The reality is that finding ways to show appreciation for everyone going the extra mile – employees, students, supervisors, etc. – has never been more important than during COVID.

I’m one of the lucky ones: I’m retired.

I’m not a student who’s trying to navigate the world of adolescence and the beginning of independence while confined to my bedroom, studying and socializing by Zoom.

I’m not a teacher or professor who’s now teaching students both online and in-class, with never-ending online demands and little ability to provide everything my students really need.

I’m not a new employee who’s trying to learn how to do a good job while working remotely, with no-one down the hall to ask for advice or assistance, and with no clear way of absorbing an office culture or figuring out how to fit in or do the job I’m meant to do.

I’m not a supervisor or administrator who’s trying to guide/lead employees to do their best in a nearly impossible, continually changing environment where there are no obvious right or wrong decisions as to how to proceed.  And all the while, I’m unable to engage with my employees or my administrative colleagues face to face; it’s all by Zoom.

I’ve been in all of those roles at some point in my life, but never in these trying circumstances.  And I can’t imagine how difficult this is for everyone.  What I enjoyed most about working, regardless of position, was the sense of community.  The sense that I was part of something bigger than myself and that my work was making a contribution to the success of the organization.  I liked being part of a development team or a department.  I liked being part of groups where people worked collaboratively together to tackle problems.  Working collaboratively towards common goals brings feelings of appreciation a well as accomplishment.  It builds community.

It turns out that a sense of community that has been strong for decades can disappear quickly when people – the same employees, students, supervisors, etc. – suddenly find themselves working remotely.  In isolation from each other and living in a stressed-out world.  Day after day, week after week, month after month.  What’s really different?  After all, there’s Zoom, right?

But … no seeing colleagues in the hallway or coffee room.  The ability to have a quick chat about something on the side is gone.  No meeting new students or employees in person, and if so only at a distance and with masks on.  No ability to see each other’s body language, which can convey so much.  Body language can help communicate lack of conviction about a decision, or allow a misunderstanding to be recognized when it hasn’t been verbalized.  Body language may communicate that someone needs some additional support, perhaps technical support or even emotional support.  In these times, maybe even more likely emotional support.

All this has been missing for many, many people.  And for those who have been working in in-person settings, it has been so stressful in many environments that any sense of community has undoubtedly suffered anyway.  Those people, such as in the healthcare field, for example, are too stressed and exhausted to reach out to others.  They all need to be reached out to themselves.

How do we re-establish the office cultures that enrich our work lives post-COVID?  How do we regain a sense of community within our various work places, a feeling of belonging to and contributing to something of value?  It saddened me no end to hear people who I know put their heart and soul into their work feeling unappreciated.  They had never felt like that at work before.  Overcoming this broken relationship needs to be on everyone’s list, because everyone can have a role to play in turning it around.

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First of all, show gratitude to yourself.  You have been working long and hard and have done a great job in very trying circumstances.  You have made a difference.  Remind yourself of this from time to time.

And then, tell someone else that you appreciate them for what they’ve been able to accomplish during these trying times.  And then ask that person to pass it on.  Spread the appreciation.  Make it contagious.  Spread it up the chain, spread it down the chain.  Spread the appreciation bug.  ‘Tis the season.

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Images source: Pinterest

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15 Responses to How to retain – or regain – a sense of community during a pandemic

  1. Jean says:

    I will try posting short comment and hopefully it can be posted:
    I feel sorry for the kids from preschool to university who must study remote a lot during this time. A lot of kids do benefit from in-person group learning. And also for recent grads., just starting their careers. Like my nephew who moved to California from Toronto. A job with Meta…but he’s working from home still.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      It worked just fine, Jean! I agree completely. I feel sorry for the students of all ages who have been forced to study remotely. They’ve missed so much important socializing time, and many have been left behind in learning. Ditto for all those young people just starting a new job, with little or no mentoring available. It’s been a tough time.

  2. debscarey says:

    As ever, a wonderfully thought-provoking post Jane, thank you. I’ve been working from home for 10+ years and very happily so. I enjoy interacting with people, but not wasting time commuting is a boon for me. But, I do understand that it doesn’t suit everyone, nor is it possible for everyone. We certainly owe a massive debt to those who couldn’t work from home and remained “out there” to enable us to keep ourselves safe. A friend of mine recently started a new job, where home working is now the new normal, and she left it before 3 months were up. It was sad but they really didn’t have any concept of how to ensure that she got up to speed when she didn’t interact with her colleagues except in a planned appointment kind of way.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Many thanks, Debs. Yes, both my sons have found working from home since the pandemic started to have advantages, especially the commuting time saved, but they’re both well established in their careers. I think there are going to be long-lasting issues in trying to re-establish a sense of community in many work and study environments. I just hope everyone in these environments realizes the efforts required and goes the extra mile. But, sadly, this isn’t over yet.

  3. This is my granddaughters first year of full-time teaching and she loves it but she has had an awesome group of fifth graders in her classroom and they all adore her. I get pictures of her and her students almost daily and they all look so attentive. She is teaching full time and working on her Masters Program and I honestly don’t know how she does it. She only has 12 students and the other fifth grade has 13 and that teacher is a first-time teacher as well. The teachers have become great friends and plan their semester together in the event one is out sick or something. The classes are combined when that happens due to the lack of subs this year. Things have changed so much since her Mom was in school. Victoria is really concerned about what the New Year will bring when everyone is out for two week Christmas break and all of the get togethers for that time. Only 47% of our county is vaccinated and that doesn’t include the children.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      This sounds like a very special school to have nice small classes like that. Victoria is the kind of young person the world needs more of, someone who cares about what she’s doing and who she’s helping. You must be very proud of her (I know you are!). I’m afraid she’s right to be concerned about what may transpire over a 2-week holiday break, with a new variant and so many gatherings. It’s truly impossible for me to understand why so many people don’t want to be vaccinated, but it’s not just in the U.S. Sigh.

  4. Terrific post, Jane. Appreciation and gratitude are so important right now. I’m also glad that I’m retired, but I watch my kids navigating their way through a Covid world, with their full-time jobs and other responsibilities. It’s daunting and frustrating and awkward at times, but they always find a way to make it work somehow.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Debra. This has been such a trying time for so many people of all ages. I almost feel like I’ve been cheating, being retired and living in a place that never went into full lockdown

  5. dfolstad58 says:

    I liked your post and photos. Appreciation and gratitude are immensely important. What is sad is when appreciation is expressed and the recipient is amazed by the sentiment.
    I had coffee with a friend yesterday who is so happy they will never work in my past office again in person. My friend found staff interactions unbearably stressful, and the unhappy clientele much less so. I am happy for her that now she can work from home and do so for the foreseeable future.

    I agree with you that zoom is two dimensional, and lacks the many benefits of face-to-face but for some it’s perfecto !

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Wow, David, what an important addition. It appears that the absence of in-person interaction is likely to cause the at-least-partial dissolution of a previously healthy work environment, but for work environments that were unhealthy to begin with, being able to work remotely, away from that environment, is a benefit, even a salvation. Sadly, both make sense! Of course, what we want is for everyone working in any capacity at all to feel valued for their work and to feel part of something bigger than themselves. That takes enlightened leadership.

  6. Linda Sprague says:

    A good post Jane. i can attest to the frustration of trying to teach piano lessons to young kids via skype. I’m SO happy to be able to see them in person and I’m not taking it for granted these days…

    • Jane Fritz says:

      What a great example, Linda. I cannot imagine trying to teach piano to young kids through a screen. Let’s hope this “light at the end of the tunnel” we’ve been experiencing doesn’t turn back into renewed restrictions. The virus keeps outsmarting the humans!

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