This month’s Thought Leader article is written by New American Pathways CEO Paedia Mixon. As New AP returns to in person services this summer, she reflects on leadership lessons and the planning process of returning to the office, while keeping the well being of staff and clients in mind.
One Saturday in March 2020 I received a call from my mother’s assisted living facility letting me know they were going on lockdown due to the COVID-19 virus. The following Thursday we made the decision to close the New American Pathways office and move to 100% virtual operation. That Friday my daughter’s school went virtual.
Over the past year and four months I have done my best to lead an organization from my house. I have done my best to support and entertain a 10-year old schooling at home without summer camp or playdates. I have done my best to deal with the grief of not seeing my mom for five months then losing her to complications from COVID-19. As we venture back into the office this month, I am truly excited to see everyone and begin the process of getting back to normal. I am also weary, sad and exhausted from the year and a half I have just lived through.
New AP has 59 employees and 15 AmeriCorps service members. I know that every single one of our team members has a story like mine, their own version of isolation, grief and struggle and that as they walk back into our office, they are not the same people that walked out last March. A lot has been asked of them for that 16 months. We owe it to each of them to welcome them back with a lot of love and a lot of grace.
How to effectively do that is the leadership question I have been asking myself and our senior leadership team for the past few months. We know that we are in uncharted territory and that whatever we do won’t be perfect. That being said, there are a few things we do know that are guiding us through this transition:
1. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. We have to keep the health and safety of our clients and staff at the forefront of all of our decision making.
2. The workplace has fundamentally changed. We have to consider what we have been able to do working from home and try to retain what has been good for workers and families during this year at home.
3 Childcare, health and family issues are still present and employees need the flexibility to deal with the realities of life.
With this in mind we have implemented a soft opening, encouraging, but not requiring staff to come back to the office on scheduled days. We are wearing masks, social distancing and maintaining capacity limits in all of our common spaces. We are discussing vaccines and COVID infection rates in every staff meeting. We have approached in person services by providing clear guidelines to staff and allowing them the flexibility to figure our to best provide service within these limits. Our leadership team is reviewing policies and COVID data every two weeks and adapting as needed.
We also need to make sure our team knows how much we appreciate the great work that they have done and continue to do through this challenging time. To the extent we are able, we have instituted salary increases and bonuses. We also engage in staff appreciation events and have sent lunch delivery vouchers and care packages during the pandemic. Every staff member has returned to the office with individual cleaning and snack packs on their desk.
Finally, we recognize that illness, quarantine, school closings, and family care needs will require some of our staff to miss work. To accommodate these needs we have instituted a COVID-19 leave benefit so that no one feels pressured to take risks coming into the office.
Our organization will continue to learn and evolve in the coming months. Retaining our experienced and dedicated staff members is important to us and to those we serve. We must remember that, as a human service organization, if we want to serve our clients and community well, we need to ensure that the humans we serve include the ones on our staff.