Of coronavirus and climate change: Zooming in on the future of academic and professional conferences

We’re about to go live with the Dec. 2020 Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop (https://www.humiliationstudies.org)

Last May (link here), I speculated about the future of academic and professional conferences in view of the unfolding pandemic. I opened by affirming how meaningful these gatherings can be:

I am hardly alone in attesting that I can trace career and life changing collaborations, associations, and friendships to various conferences, seminars, and workshops. These events have introduced me to people, ideas, and research that have profoundly shaped the course of what I do and fostered communities that transcend distance.

I have written frequently about the importance and meaning of such events. . . . With these events and so many others, I could tell story after story about gaining meaningful, lasting connections and insights.

I went on to acknowledge that the pandemic was forcing the cancellation of many events and the moving of others to online formats. Although I understood that platforms such as Zoom were making online conferences doable, I lamented the inherent limitations:

But these platforms cannot deliver true alternatives to the fortuitous sidebar conversations, meals, and coffee meet-ups that are often the stuff of future projects and new associations. Great things can hatch from these more informal interactions. Online “chat rooms” simply do not provide the same space.

Fifteen months later

Since posting that entry, I have participated in many online conferences, workshops, and seminars, with the events originating as close as Boston and as far away as India and Israel. I have been grateful for the opportunity to connect with colleagues and friends from around the world. Some of these interactions would not have occurred had the program been held in face-to-face settings. The travel times and costs would’ve been prohibitive.

However, I also was reminded over and again of the aforementioned limitations of such events. The informal chats and get togethers that are connective highlights of many academic and professional gatherings were sadly missing. Who knows what great ideas and future collaborations never materialized because we couldn’t chat over coffee or a meal?

Looking ahead

Well folks, like it or not, for at least three reasons, I think we’re going to be online for many of these events during the years to come.

Viral matters

First, this virus appears to be spinning off variants and mutations that will make travel planning an ongoing and earnest game of whack-a-mole (public health edition) for the foreseeable future. These realities are especially acute for conferences that attract an international constituencies.

For example, I’m currently helping to organize a global conference in France, scheduled for summer 2022. Let’s just say that a lot of folks are in a wait-and-see mode, even in terms of submitting panel and presentation proposals. Very recently, the European Union took the U.S. off of its safe travel list due to our current outbreak. Who knows what things will look like next year?

Air travel and climate change

Second, there’s the impact of air travel on climate change. Global aviation (including both passenger and freight) accounts for roughly 2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. While this pales in comparison to the environmental impact of other modes of transportation (especially auto travel), commercial air travel — in particular — is disproportionately the province of people and businesses who can afford airline tickets.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop flying or shipping goods by air. But if people are going to fly, then let’s get the maximum bang for the buck. To me, that means prioritizing flights to maintain ties between families and friends, above all. I also think we need to value tourism, study abroad, and other travel purposes that enrich our lives.

In addition, I think we need to pick and choose between professional conference opportunities that require air travel carefully and wisely. On the one hand, piggybacking active participation in a favorite conference with seeing friends and family seems like a good use of a plane trip. By contrast, if one’s conference participation amounts to flying across the country to talk for 20 minutes on a panel and little else, then maybe it’s not a responsible expenditure of jet fuel.

Costs

Finally, there’s the matter of accessibility and affordability. Factoring in air fare, hotel room, registration fee, and daily expenses, a major conference can cost as much as a getaway vacation. For academics, especially, funding support for conference travel is unevenly distributed, to say the least.

Online conferences even the participation field a bit, notwithstanding their built-in limitations. Registration fees are often lower, and there are no plane tickets or hotel rooms to be booked. You can eat at home.

Of course, there’s a third conference or workshop possibility, and that’s a hybrid format that allows for both in-person and online participation. Unfortunately, the logistical nightmares from a planning standpoint make this an unrealistic option for most conferences, unless they’ve got oodles of money and first-rate, tech-equipped facilities and staff to go with them.

The professional benefits of high-quality, in-person conferences, workshops, and seminars with plenty of opportunities for informal interaction are significant, and thus I would hate to see these events disappear. For the time being, however, I think that we’re going to do a lot of our interacting online.

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Some previous blog posts about conferences and workshops

“A workshop as annual ritual” (2019) (link here) — Photo essay on the 2019 annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, held at Columbia University in New York City.

“A short speech in Rome” (2019) (link here) — Text of my speech praising our shared experiences of participating in the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, delivered at the 2019 Congress in Rome.

“Workplace Bullying University, ‘All Star’ edition” (2019) (link here) — Recounting experiences at an enhanced edition of the Workplace Bullying Institute’s intensive training seminar, hosted by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie in San Francisco, CA.

“Dr. Edith Eger’s ‘The Choice’: On trauma and healing” (2017) (link here) — I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Edith Eger, noted trauma therapist, author, and Holocaust survivor, at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California.

“North of the border: On transforming our laws and legal systems” (2016) (link here) — Report on a therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada.

“Conferences as community builders” (2015) (link here) — Touting the many benefits of the 2015 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Atlanta, Georgia, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

Pandemic bullies: Unruly customers are making work life miserable for service sector staff

A year ago, I reported on how some customers were taking out their pandemic-related frustrations via terrible treatment of service-sector workers (link here). The situation appears to be worsening. As America and other countries are emerging from pandemic lockdowns, stories of customer abuse of workers in restaurants, commercial airline flights, and other venues are multiplying. These working conditions appear to be contributing to staffing shortages in the retail sector, in particular.

I want my food, NOW

For example, as reported by Neil Vigdor for the New York Times (link here), one Cape Cod, Massachusetts restaurant closed for a day to support workers who were experiencing repeated verbal abuse from entitled customers:

The verbal abuse from rude customers got so bad, the owners of one farm-to-table restaurant on Cape Cod said, that some of their employees cried.

The final indignity came last Thursday, when a man berated one of the restaurant’s young employees for telling him that they could not take his breakfast takeout order because the restaurant had not opened yet, said Brandi Felt Castellano, the co-owner of Apt Cape Cod in Brewster, Mass.

“I never thought it would become this,” she said.

So Ms. Felt Castellano and her spouse, Regina Felt Castellano, who is also the head chef and co-owner, announced on Facebook that the restaurant would close for part of that same day to treat the restaurant’s employees to a “day of kindness.”

…“It’s like abuse,” she said. “It’s things that people are saying that wouldn’t be allowed to be on TV because they would be bleeped. People are always rude to restaurant workers, but this far exceeds anything I’ve seen in my 20 years.”

It’s getting rough up there

Air travel is another venue that is bringing out the worst in some customers. As Andrea Day and Chris DiLella report for CNBC (link here):

They’ve been cursed out, grabbed and even punched in the head.

Flight attendants are now speaking out publicly about the stress of managing increasingly unruly passengers at 35,000 feet, a job that’s gotten more difficult in recent months as passengers return to the skies after months of lockdowns.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced flight attendants to enforce federal rules requiring masks on planes, a mandate that’s touched a political nerve for many Americans and led to a rise in bad behavior onboard.

“It’s definitely out of control,” said flight attendant Matthew Cook, one of two flight attendants who agreed to speak to CNBC on the record as long as their employer wasn’t identified. “I have apprehensions [about] going to work every day. I have a lot of anxiety.”

Most flight attendants have kept quiet about the rise of unruly passengers out of fear of retaliation by their employers.

Some readers may have been around long enough to remember the old saying, the customer is always right. It was a slogan used by retail managers to exhort their employees to make customer satisfaction their highest priority. Okay, so while we’re all appreciative of good service, in truth the customer isn’t always right, and these various instances of bullying, incivility, and violence are proving so. 

Voting with their feet

It appears that many workers are voting with their feet. As Mary Meisenzahl reports for Business Insider (link here), abusive customers are combining with low pay and better opportunities elsewhere to create major staffing shortages in the retail sector:

Some workers are leaving retail and restaurant jobs to get away from low pay and difficult customers, and a growing number of openings in the labor market is making it easier to transition to new careers.

…Hiring has been difficult for many companies, which have reported a lack of candidates for open positions. But retail and restuarants are are also struggling to retain workers who want to leave for new opportunities.

…Another Starbucks employee said after a dangerous and difficult year because of the pandemic, fatigue and treatment are top concerns. “Employees have been fired or people are quitting because we’re so overworked and stressed and abused,” an employee at a Midwest Starbucks told Insider.

A Louisiana barista echoed the same complaints.  The “handful [of customers] that you get each day who will berate or abuse you can take a drastic toll on your mental well being,” he told Insider.

Research says so, too

Those who question whether customer abuse impacts employee attrition can look at this 2019 study conducted by University of British Columbia researchers that establishes the link. As reported in ScienceDaily (link here):

…In fact, studies have shown that dealing with problematic customers can lead to emotional exhaustion, negative moods, poorer physical health, reduced performance and lower job satisfaction.

But does it also lead to higher employee turnover?

According to a new study led by the UBC Sauder School of Business in collaboration with the UBC-Okanagan Faculty of Management, the University of Illinois, and the University of Queensland in Australia, customer conflict plays a big role when it comes to workers saying “I quit” — and how supervisors manage that conflict helps decide whether employees stay or go.

…Even when controlling for other factors that would lead a worker to throw in the towel — factors including low pay, long hours and poor working conditions — the researchers found a significant link between customer mistreatment and employee quit rates.

“We were able to predict who was going to quit based on their experience of customer mistreatment and emotional exhaustion. You can see it coming,” says UBC Sauder School of Business professor Danielle van Jaarsveld, lead author of the study.

“It starts accumulating, and eventually you hit the wall and say, ‘I’ve got to look for another job.’ Because if you don’t find a way to replenish those emotional resources, they deplete and you’ve got nothing left,” says study co-author and UBC Sauder School of Business professor Daniel Skarlicki.

Kindness, employer support, unions

How can we address this disturbing uptick in worker mistreatment by customers? At least three points come to mind:

First, we can all hold ourselves accountable. Kindness, understanding, and practicing the Golden Rule go a long way, including when we’re at a restaurant or store or in an airplane. And if you see something, say something. Bystander intervention counts for a lot.

Second, employers need to support their workers, like the co-owners of that Cape Cod restaurant did with their day of kindness for their staff. Abusive customers are never in the right.

Third, we need more unions in the service sector to help safeguard workers from mistreatment, regardless of the source. Collective bargaining helps to hold employers accountable for taking care of their employees.

 

What will America’s world of work look like as we emerge from the pandemic?

Second shot came 3 weeks later!

What will America’s world of work look like as we emerge from the pandemic? Now that vaccination numbers are up, new infections and COVID-19 fatalities are down, and businesses and cultural institutions are re-opening, it’s time to generate discussions about the future of work, workers, and workplaces during the months and years to come. 

Bullying and harassment

First, bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work — key topics for this blog — won’t be going away any time soon. As I reported last month, the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2021 national scientific survey revealed that, during the pandemic, a lot of bullying behaviors simply migrated to online platforms such as Zoom. Furthermore, individuals of Asian descent have been targeted for racial harassment due to the apparent origins of the coronavirus in China. Also, retail workers across the country have been verbally abused and physically assaulted by out-of-control customers who disagreed with mask and public safety requirements. In short, while this pandemic has brought out the best in some people, it also has brought out the worst in others.

The face-to-face workplace

Second, we’re going to see a somewhat clunky and varied transition back to working in face-to-face office settings again. Some workers can’t wait to get back to the office, while others have found themselves working effectively — and more contentedly — at home. Employers have experienced differing productivity levels with people working remotely, and some have been re-evaluating their need for large office spaces. We may see greater reliance on hybrid approaches that mix-and-match working from home and coming into the office when necessary.

Restaurant recoveries?

Third, many retailers, especially those in the restaurant and food service industry, are going to be in recovery mode. For example, will the pre-pandemic fondness that many Americans have for eating at restaurants return as vaccinations and improved ventilation systems make indoor dining safe possibilities? Fingers crossed that these industries will make robust comebacks!

Frontline workers

Fourth, millions of essential frontline workers have been putting themselves in harm’s way to stock shelves, operate cash registers, produce and deliver goods and packages, and perform countless other tasks to help keep our society going during this time. Will a grateful nation reward them with higher pay, better benefits, and stronger job security? It’s anyone’s guess as to whether that will occur.

Women bear the brunt

Fifth, the labor market impacts of this pandemic have been very gendered, with more women than men bearing the brunt of caregiving at home for children and the ill. While it may be premature to assess how this will effect current generations of women workers in the long term, the short-term impact has been palpable and threatens to endure.

Health care workers

Sixth, health care workers across the country who have been treating COVID-19 patients face trauma, exhaustion, and burnout from working long hours under the most difficult circumstances. They have been in the trenches of this war against the virus, and many have paid a price in terms of their physical and emotional health. We owe them a debt of gratitude, which includes providing all necessary measures to support them as they recover from this ordeal.

Ch-ch-changes

Seventh, we may witness a stream of career transitions, job changes, and early retirements, the cumulative results of individual and family contemplations about their lives during this long period of semi-quarantine. As I wrote in my personal blog over the weekend:

The pandemic appears to have prompted a lot of self-reflection among middle-aged folks during the past year or so, and the results of these inner dialogues are starting to emerge. More and more we’re hearing about career and job shifts, accelerated retirement timelines, moves to places near and far, changes in personal relationships, new hobbies and avocations, and more active pursuits of “bucket list” plans.

This stuff is popping up in everyday conversations, Facebook postings, and news features about life transitions in the shadow of COVID-19. I don’t know if it’s a temporary blip on the screen or the beginning of some major social ground shifting, but for now the phenomenon is real.

Haves and have-nots

Finally, the pandemic has exacerbated the divide between the haves and have-nots. Those who could work remotely and safely, watch their retirement accounts grow amidst a strong stock market, and take advantage of generous, employer-provided health care plans are coming out of this pandemic in pretty good shape. Those who lost their jobs, tapped into meager savings, and have struggled to obtain needed health care have found themselves increasingly reliant on special safety net measures enacted by the federal government. This is among the reasons why I hope that the Biden Administration’s proposals to create millions of jobs with good wages and benefits to help repair our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and build a healthy green economy are enacted. 

These points raise but a few of the compelling matters related to the post-pandemic future of work in America. In all, they highlight persistent challenges of opportunity, equality, and worker dignity that existed before this virus transformed our lives. Accordingly, I hope that we, as a society, will take the high road in prioritizing the needs of those who have struggled the most during one of the most challenging times in our history.

WBI survey: Workplace bullying zoomed online during pandemic

From WBI, workplacebullying.org

Workplace bullying didn’t disappear during the pandemic. Rather, much of this behavior simply went online, mainly via virtual meetings rather than by email.

This is among the key findings of the Workplace Bullying Institute’s latest scientific survey on workplace bullying in the U.S., done in partnership with Zogby Analytics, a leading global polling firm. The survey was conducted in January 2021 and collected data from a nationally representative sample of over 1,200 adults. (Click here for a summary and access to the full report by Dr. Gary Namie, WBI’s co-founder.)

Some 43 percent of respondents reported being subjected to bullying behaviors online either currently or previously, in contrast to a 30 percent prevalence rate overall. By a wide margin, virtual meetings were more likely than email to be the sources of bullying. (Click here for the survey report chapter examining remote bullying.)

This finding helps to answer questions I have raised earlier about how the coronavirus pandemic might affect the frequency and nature of bullying and mobbing behaviors at work. Last May, I was more optimistic that the challenges posed by the pandemic might help to bring out our best behaviors at work. But I did add:

However, some of the bad behavior, as I mentioned, will simply port over to an online setting. After all, less-than-wonderful co-workers can be jerks on Zoom and scheme and manipulate in the digital fog. This could give rise to more covert forms of bullying, sabotaging, and undermining of others.

I will be sharing more highlights from the WBI survey in future posts. The survey is a rich treasure trove of data on the state of work during these difficult times.

***

Disclosure: I have been affiliated with WBI on a pro bono basis since 1998, and I made a contribution to a crowdfunding campaign to fund this survey.

How would you feel if your boss had a betting pool on how many workers would contract COVID-19?

We’re seeing plenty of instances of how the coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the best and the worst of us, and here’s another bellringer example of the latter: Last year, seven managers at a Tyson pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, were fired in the wake of accusations that they created a betting pool on how many of their employees would contract COVID-19. As reported by Sarah Al-Arshani for Business Insider (link here):

Tyson Foods fired seven management employees at a Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant following an independent investigation into allegations that managers bet money on how many workers would catch the virus during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

…The accusations came about after the discovery of an amended court document in the wrongful death lawsuit of Isidro Fernandez, a Tyson meatpacking worker who died of COVID-19 in April.

One of the fired managers defended the betting pool as a “morale boost” for exhausted managers, as reported by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press (link here):

Don Merschbrock, a former night manager at the plant in Waterloo, Iowa, said he was speaking in an attempt to show that the seven fired supervisors are “not the evil people” that Tyson has portrayed.

…The office pool involved roughly $50 cash, which went to the winner who picked the correct percentage of workers testing positive for the virus, Merschbrock said. He added that those involved didn’t believe the pool violated company policy and thought the plant’s positivity rate would be lower than the community rate due to their mitigation efforts.

“It was a group of exhausted supervisors that had worked so hard and so smart to solve many unsolvable problems,” Merschbrock said. “It was simply something fun, kind of a morale boost for having put forth an incredible effort. There was never any malicious intent. It was never meant to disparage anyone.”

The wrongful death lawsuit that outed the betting pool account alleges that Tyson managers had downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and covered up a COVID-19 outbreak so that workers would continue to report for their shifts. As further reported by Sarah Al-Arshani:

According to the lawsuit, some managers were demanding that sick employees come into work, and one employee, who vomited on the production line, was made to return to work the following day. 

The lawsuit also alleged that managers gave out $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who worked all of their scheduled shifts for three months, and warned workers not to discuss COVID-19 while at work. 

Of course, the most serious concerns pertain to the actual health and safety of the workers, and it appears the Tyson has a lot to answer for on those points. The allegations reflect narratives as old as the history of wage labor: Pressuring workers to produce under unhealthy and life threatening conditions. They remind us of the muckraking work of journalist Upton Sinclair in the early 1900s, when he exposed horrific working conditions in the meatpacking industry in his novel The Jungle.

In addition, the betting pool reveals another level of disturbing management dehumanization of its own employees, one that goes beyond the immediate pressures of keeping production going under trying circumstances. To describe the bets as “something fun, kind of a morale boost,” while denying any malicious intent, simply doesn’t add up. It’s quite sick and twisted, and it doesn’t reflect well upon Tyson’s practices for hiring managers.

***

Hat-tip to Alayna Cohen for originally flagging this story for me.

America votes, and the results will define our future

As the United States experiences an alarming, nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases, we face an election that will define us for the foreseeable future. The nation’s fundamental integrity and heart quality are on trial. If we do not elect a new President, it is quite possible that the American experiment is over.

Among many other things, I have been saddened and appalled at how the current administration has mishandled the pandemic. Reelecting the incumbent will be the equivalent of imposing a death sentence on hundreds of thousands of unwitting victims, fueled by the dishonesty, ignorance, and cruelty that have defined this man’s nearly four years in office.

The incumbent is doing everything he can to suppress the vote in battleground states and plant seeds of doubt in the election results if he loses. We have never seen anything like this in the modern history of presidential politics.

No other public figure has ever had such a negative effect on my day-to-day quality of life. I feel like I have been forced to endure an abusive civic relationship. The fact that much of my work as an academic addresses behaviors such as bullying, gaslighting, and abuse of power has sharpened my understanding of what we’ve been enduring.

By contrast, I think well of Joe Biden. He is a decent human being and a capable, street-smart public servant. I have long believed that he is the best candidate to win back the White House from its current occupant. When I put my ballot in the mail a few weeks ago, I was happy to vote for him and Kamala Harris. I pray that I voted for the winning ticket.

The weeks to come will determine the future of America’s soul, not to mention our ability to defeat and recover from a deadly pandemic. We live in momentous times.

***

Cross-posted to my Musings of a Gen Joneser personal blog.

Will “de-densifying” reduce workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment in the COVID-transformed American workplace?

In a piece for The Guardian over the summer (link here), Cassidy Randall speculated on the future of American office life, as employers consider options for full or partial re-opening in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic:

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge in parts of the US, some companies have moved forward with plans to let their employees re-enter the office after months of working from home.

In the absence of federal guidelines around best practices, office managers will probably need to rely on an abundance of caution. This may turn offices into ghost towns of their former selves, with gatherings by the water cooler, big meetings and buzzing shared spaces disappearing for the foreseeable future.

Anticipating a possible uptick in infection rates during the fall, she emphasized the likelihood of “de-densifying” staffing patterns and staggered shifts to moderate the number of workers present in the office at any given time. This could mean, at least for now, the cessation of large, in-person staff meetings and crowded work areas.

The disturbingly stubborn rates of COVID-19 infections have no doubt caused many employers to continue to permit workers to spend parts or all of their week working from home. In some circles, this has raised the question of the necessity of maintaining large offices and on-site work requirements, even after we find our way through this pandemic. A prominent example of this revamping is Microsoft. As reported earlier this month by Tom Warren for The Verge (link here):

Microsoft is allowing more of its employees to work from home permanently, the company announced Friday. While the vast majority of Microsoft employees are still working from home during the ongoing pandemic, the software maker has unveiled “hybrid workplace” guidance internally to allow for far greater flexibility once US offices eventually reopen. The Verge has received Microsoft’s internal guidance, and it outlines the company’s flexible working plans for the future.

Microsoft will now allow employees to work from home freely for less than 50 percent of their working week, or for managers to approve permanent remote work. Employees who opt for the permanent remote work option will give up their assigned office space, but still have options to use touchdown space available at Microsoft’s offices.

Better work environments?

I’ve been looking at these assessments in part through a lens of whether the coronavirus-impacted work environment will affect prevalence rates and the nature of various types of workplace abuse. Back in May, I offered this preliminary forecast for when physical workplaces start to reopen:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

What I didn’t anticipate was the now very real possibility that some (many?) organizations may never return to the fully occupied physical workspaces that were the norm before the pandemic suddenly defined the contours of our lives.

To the extent that bullying, mobbing, and harassment are very relational activities, de-densifying via continued physical distancing and staggered employee shifts may help to reduce the prevalence of these forms of mistreatment. However, some of the bad behavior, as I mentioned, will simply port over to an online setting. After all, less-than-wonderful co-workers can be jerks on Zoom and scheme and manipulate in the digital fog. This could give rise to more covert forms of bullying, sabotaging, and undermining of others.

It’s also possible that, as I suggested in May, most people will try to rise above the fray, grateful to be employed, while recognizing that we should all bring a sense of team play to the current work situation.

For now, it’s too early to know whether these work-at-home practices will become a new normal. But this bears watching, especially by those of us who are attentive to the various ways in which workplace mistreatment may manifest itself.

Amid this pandemic, folks are digging deep to provide welcomed goods and services

(image courtesy of clipart panda.com)

I’m going to sound a little Pollyannish in this entry. Yesterday it struck me once again how many people are digging very deep to provide goods and services to all of us, to keep small businesses up and running, and to generally give us some semblance of normalcy as we continue to live in the shadow of this pandemic.

Yesterday I walked over to the main retail district of my Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston for a visit to the Post Office, a long-needed haircut (yes, even us balding fellows need a trim now and then), and a stop by my local food store.

I first went to the Post Office to pick up some stamps. It reminded me of how helpful my mail deliverer has been during this time, especially given how many packages I’ve received during the past few months.

I then walked into Sal’s Barber Shop to see everyone in masks and plastic partitions between each chair. After a short wait, I sat down for my first haircut since March. It was over quickly (like I said, it’s mostly chrome on top), and I felt completely safe in that environment. The owner was so grateful for my business, but I felt like I should be thanking them for keeping their shop open, while following safety guidelines.

Finally, I went over the main store of City Feed & Supply and filled a small bag with some goodies for home. (The City Feed’s grocery delivery service has been a lifeline for me during this pandemic!) I was happy to see the store’s co-founder setting up tables and chairs as part of a new local initiative to allow for more outdoor cafe and dining service. I hope that we’ll get a long New England fall so that folks can safely enjoy their coffee, pastries, and sandwiches in some nice weather.

I claim no great epiphanies from yesterday’s neighborhood sojourn, just a deep and renewed appreciation for those whose labors are contributing so much to the sometimes buffeted, but always resilient, fabric of our communities. During challenging times, these everyday heroes step up to make a positive difference in our lives. 

 

Teaching as everyday leadership (pandemic edition)

The new “back to school” prep

This strange, anxious, and difficult period, marked by a pandemic that has changed our lives dramatically, has caused me to engage in no small amount of reflection on my role as an educator. I keep coming back to the notion of teaching as a form of everyday leadership.

By March, the coronavirus situation was well on its way toward becoming a global pandemic. In response, my university — like so many others — announced that we would be teaching the rest of the semester online. For a lot of faculty (including yours truly), that meant using the Zoom videoconferencing platform that now has become a staple in many millions of lives. This fall, it’s pretty much more of the same, except that we’re starting off the term online, rather than switching modalities in mid-semester.

I’m grateful that we have technologies that allow us to have live classes. Under normal circumstances, most of us would prefer to be in face-to-face classrooms. But these are not normal times, at least in a city that was one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots during the spring and early summer. We’re doing better now, but we cannot take this threat lightly.

This isn’t what our students signed up for in terms of an educational experience. I’m a law professor, and in normal times, both our full-time day and part-time evening students have the benefit of studying law right in the heart of Boston. They have the use of a beautiful building and a spacious law library, with a variety of on-site services ready to help them. They are within walking distance of legal employers, courthouses, and government offices.

For now, however, instead of having all that, most are logging in from their homes or workplaces to attend law classes online. The disruptions to their usual lives and to their degree programs have often been substantial.

Of course, I understand that the lives of educators, administrators, and staff in higher education have been upended as well. We will never forget the unsettling transition of suddenly going into lockdown mode, while wondering if the most momentary contacts with the outside world will cause us and people we care about to get very sick. Adapting our work lives around these new realities hasn’t been easy.

Nevertheless, practicing everyday leadership means rising above our own challenges to educate, support, and inspire our students. How we present ourselves and engage our students in this online mode will greatly impact how they perceive the experience of studying remotely. Some will also look to us for cues on how to get things done, while emotionally navigating the dramatic changes in our lives.

I’m fortunate to teach at a university where our students are generally not entitled or spoiled. Quite understandably, they’re not happy with this situation, but they are doing their best to adapt to it. If they see their instructors putting in the effort to make these courses useful and interesting, then they are likely to respond in kind.

Of course, teaching is like that generally. The ability, effort, and emotional intelligence of individual professors always make a difference. But under current circumstances, these qualities matter even more.

America’s pandemic economy: Little news and big news alike, it’s pretty sad right now

Just last week, I was thinking about how nice it will be to once again grab a late lunch and spend part of the afternoon working at the Pret A Manger cafe in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. For a downtown, high-volume chain eatery, it had a homey and comfortable feel to it. Once the business lunch hour crowd had dissipated, I was usually able to find a table to enjoy my food and get some work done, with laptop or tablet at hand.

My typical lunch fare was one of Pret’s egg salad sandwiches and a cup of lentil soup, with a coffee or an iced tea for a little mid-day boost. If I was there for a snack only, I’d often opt for one of their chocolate chunk cookies, truly one of the best I’ve ever had. Only minutes from my university office, it was a pleasant place to be productive, and the staff was always friendly and efficient. During recent years, I spent many hours there.

But earlier this week, the company announced that it is closing all of its Boston locations. As reported by Erin Kuschner for Boston.com (link here):

London-based café chain Pret A Manger has closed all of its Boston locations as it announced plans to restructure its business model as a result of COVID-19.

In a statement shared with Boston.com on Wednesday, the company revealed that U.S. sales were down by 87 percent year-over-year due to the pandemic, and that it had made the decision to close 17 outposts across Boston and Chicago….

When it comes to the state of the American economy, it’s all pretty much the same, on smaller or larger scales. The impact of the pandemic on the national economy has been terrible. As Scott Horsley reports for National Public Radio (link here):

The coronavirus pandemic triggered the sharpest economic contraction in modern American history, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic activity — shrank at an annual rate of 32.9% in the second quarter as restaurants and retailers closed their doors in a desperate effort to slow the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 150,000 people in the U.S.

The economic shock in April, May and June was more than three times as sharp as the previous record — 10% in 1958 — and nearly four times the worst quarter during the Great Recession.

The numbers are horrific, but the individual stories behind them are even worse. They’re about jobs disappearing, businesses closed, and everyday pleasantries gone. The heartache is significant. The damage done in roughly five months is breathtaking. And here in the U.S., we’re not through it yet. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

 

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