The COVID-19 global pandemic forces us all to accommodate an inordinate amount of change. For many of us, everything from our basic safety to hygiene habits to where we eat has changed in recent days and weeks. Along with all that, many of us have had to make significant changes to how we work. These changes provoke a crisis of identity – and there’s strategic advantage to helping your workforce resolve it for themselves.

Whether getting accustomed to new technologies or learning new safety protocols, there’s a lot to learn. At a fundamental level, this amount of change has many of asking ourselves, who will we be in this new reality? What opportunities lie before us and what loss will we experience? Savvy Communications and HR professionals will take advantage of this moment by creating the space for new and positive rituals and cultural habits that respect employees’ mental and physical health and sense of identity.

It’s well accepted that we have more than one identity – we come and go from physical and virtual places all day long and establish familiar patterns that allow us to migrate from our “work self” to our “family self” to our “online political self” etc. with relative ease. Even so, each switch between these modalities of our identity forces us to confront the small (and large) inconsistencies between them. The ideas and beliefs you must internalize and accommodate in your work life may vary from the ideas accepted in your household. Each of these compromises provoke a mental burden called cognitive dissonance – the stress one feels when confronted with the necessity to hold two differing beliefs at once.

Digital disruption to every facet of work was already in full swing before the coronavirus outbreak. And this turbulent moment of a global pandemic forces massive disruptions to our familiar patterns of work and social life which in turn reveal the cracks in the facades we rely on to reconcile our different identities.

Organizations will gain an enormous strategic advantage by fostering cultures, workflows, technological & organizational systems, artifacts and leadership practices that enable their workforce to frictionlessly move between identities. Maintaining the integrity – the wholeness – of identity is critical to your workforce’s ability to accommodate change, offer discretionary effort in times of need, advocate for the company, and work productively and collaboratively.

But how?
For one thing, as we train more of our workforce to work remotely and adopt new technologies, we must remember that the technology is the enabler of connection, not the connection itself. Screens, conference calls, chat groups and the like are inherently lower fidelity than an in-person interaction. The literal amount of data you absorb in a virtual meeting with someone pales in comparison to what your senses perceive in person. But that doesn’t mean these virtual systems are flawed beyond use, we just need to use them wisely.

1) Spend an equal measure of time co-creating a new culture for a new mode of work – what are the artifacts, expectations, behaviors, symbols and rituals that will define this new expression of your culture?

2) Compassionately support leaders as they make the hard turn from a lifetime of tried-and-true ways of connecting with their organizations to new methods.

3) Guide and support teammates in deliberate and managed steps for reestablishing their identity in a way that allows them to maintain their personal integrity in a new work reality.

As the people who have perhaps the greatest systemic influence on employees’ experience, now’s the time to reevaluate our systems of communications governance, supporting technologies, roles on our teams and relationships with our internal stakeholders. We have an opportunity to inspect our own habits and find ways to embrace the most productive and forward-looking practices while we shed the unproductive parts of “business as usual.”

Ethan McCarty is the founder and CEO of Integral Communications Group, an employee activation agency serving leaders of Communications, HR, Marketing and Technology at organizations global and local alike. Formerly the global head of Employee and Innovation Communications for Bloomberg LP and Global Director of Social Strategy for IBM, Ethan has more than 20 years of experience leading digital communications and engagement initiatives at scale. Ethan has led large globally and culturally diverse remote teams by innovating and humanizing the practice and advising senior leaders from the CEO down among his clients on how to do the same. He is a lecturer at Columbia University on Employee Activation and Digital Media and Analytics.

Connect with Ethan on Twitter at @ethanmcc or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/ethanmccarty

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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