This somehow doesn't feel like a vacation. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s like everyone became a caregiver over the holidays.

Consider soaring Covid rates across the country. New York crossed 22% of test results coming back positive. Chicago hit 17%. Los Angeles also reached 22%. Behind each case is someone dropping soup or Gatorade at the door, fetching medicines or magazines, in between the hunt for tests or waiting for results to see who might fall next. Where there’s no such support, the sick have been left to mend and fend for themselves—also an exhausting process.

This week, companies begin the crawl back to work after the December break. But who are we kidding? For a lot of people, the world over, that was no break. Truthfully, the last few years have offered little of that.

Since early 2020, we have responded in myriad ways that are, mostly, rooted in compassion. I’ve written about some of those tactics to get through, such as “reduced-stress” weeks without Zoom calls, more public and frequent praise, and icebreakers at the start of meetings. But we have now reached a point in the pandemic where games and gimmicks can hardly lighten the burdens of so many workers battling a global health crisis without necessary tools, whether that’s a Covid test in New York City, an N95 mask in Ohio, or a vaccine in Tanzania.

It is, of course, a privileged perspective to come to this realization now. Grocery store cashiers, doctors, nurses, waiters and their families have been on the frontlines all along. Yet the rapid-fire spread of the Omicron variant forces us to reckon with how interdependent we are; stores and libraries, pharmacies, and transit systems are closing because workers are out sick, for example. Thousands of flights were canceled over the holidays for lack of healthy personnel. If the last few years were defined by employers reserving compassionate policies for those in need, the next few must make them the default for everyone.  

It’s a significant shift. Below are three pillars—New Year’s resolutions, if you will—to meet head on this unrelenting era of uncertainty, helplessness, and exhaustion.

Offer flexibility.

Study after study shows flexibility is the No. 1 thing workers want from the companies they work for—and they are willing to walk if they don’t get it. For much of the pandemic, this issue has been framed as a question of location: remote versus in-person, a country cabin versus headquarters. Certainly, a Future Forum survey found 76% want flexibility on where they work. But a whopping 93% want flexibility on when they work.

The acceptance that productivity is not only a 9-to-5 endeavor unfortunately created many workplace cultures where work becomes a 24-7 one instead. Companies that rode the wave of overseas outsourcing years ago experienced a similar transition—but they eventually learned to stop calling engineers in Bangalore at 3am. We now need to extend this same grace to anyone with children under five years old, an age group that still has not received approval for the Covid vaccine.

Another thing employers might do for those in a position of caregiving, whether their loved ones are young, old or in the middle: Offer a cushion in between the care and their return to work. I speak from experience that the fastest way to burn out is to pivot from caring for someone sick to answering the pile of emails. A day or two off in between feels the least employers can do right now, bearing in mind that it takes at least 72 hours to come down from a state of being on edge or anxious.

At the core of offering flexibility is trust, notes Brian Laung Aoaeh, managing general partner of Refashiond Ventures, which invests in supply-chain innovation. “Given the acute uncertainties we are managing and how those change from day-to-day during this pandemic, employers must trust their employees to work through the uncertainties of the moment and arrive at the right outcomes for the customer and the company,” he says.

This can be enabled by clear and constant communication from leadership, and a commitment to process and organizational culture. For example, this would be the right time to implement asynchronous brainstorming sessions so your designer who happens to be the mother of a toddler can participate. “With trust, we can work through the very human problems we are all grappling with as this pandemic unfolds,” Aoaeh says. “Without trust, nothing else matters.”

Democratize decision-making.

Last year, I wrote about Skillshare, an online learning company, and its decision to go fully remote. That approach was chosen after much deliberation and staff surveys, and yet employees’ lukewarm reception surprised chief operating officer Sabrina Kieffer. In hindsight, she told me, “People hadn’t had the opportunity to work through all the feelings” as leadership was making this decision.

As managers and employers, we are often privy to the processes and information that lead to decision-making. Our staffs rarely are. That must change in 2022.

“Involving your entire team in major decision making” will be key in this next phase of leadership, says Susan McPherson, author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships, “given that they are your most important asset and reeling from the last two years.” She runs a consulting practice of 15 employees. “I no longer make major decisions without reaching out to the team,” she says. “Prior to the pandemic, that was not the case.”

Fight pandemic inequities.

In his New Year’s Day message, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, told us the secret of ending this pandemic is hiding in plain sight. And it’s possible, he says, with a big if.

"While no country is out of the woods from the pandemic, we have many new tools to prevent and treat Covid-19,” he said. “The longer inequity continues, the higher the risks of this virus evolving in ways we can't prevent or predict. If we end inequity, we end the pandemic.”

Employers, especially those with teams toiling in multiple countries, are uniquely equipped to understand why—and help communicate this to the public. We need much better marketing and public relations around the need for equity in vaccines, Covid tests, and protective equipment across the world. So many of the more challenging byproducts of Covid, from supply-chain issues to canceled flights over the holidays, stem from the inability of the virus to respect borders. Global culture and commerce has benefited from this fluid state of the world when it comes to consumption—it’s time to give back now.