2020: Turns Out Wifi isn’t the Connection that Matters

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” as the saying goes. And I catch myself wondering what new innovations will come out of the upheaval of 2020. Except, I can’t think of any logistical problems that prevent us from approximating productive living and working conditions under the circumstances. We already had Zoom, Door Dash and all the Netflix we could binge. We seemed, in a physical sense, ready for this. So why has this been so unmooring?

I think the answer is that we have focused on solving the logistical challenges and not so much on the social/emotional ones. We have failed to account for the human dimension. We saw this recently in a pivot to online schooling. Students who had the technology and the platforms readily available disengaged and disconnected. Our school district administration encouraged teachers to fashion a unicorn horn out of cardboard and tape it to their foreheads to increase Zoom class participation. The situation is more dire for those students who had neither the physical nor the emotional needs met.

2020 should encourage a look inward as well as outward. Colleges are being forced to re-examine their mission and justify their tuition if classes are primarily online. Part of the higher education gestalt is the on-campus experience as well as the transactional delivery of knowledge. We’ve solved for x and discounted y.

Ironically, 2020 is stripping us of our pretenses and measured responses. It is forcing difficult reckonings and conversations about things we can’t invent our way out of. We may find a vaccine, but how do we restore wellbeing? Social media may make us more attuned to racial inequity, but how do we foster empathy? And maybe the answer is that we have been looking for saviors in technology or inventions too long as proxies for the hard work of listening, questioning, re-visiting, challenging, growing, and changing.

I would argue that if necessity is the mother of invention, invention has a twin: connection.

Top 3 Suggestions for ways you can create connection and navigate the emotional needs of upheaval:

  1. Check-in

Rather than assume everyone is fine because you see them on Zoom, and they seem to be meeting their deadlines, don’t forget everyone is dealing with new dimensions of stress on top of their normal responsibilities.

  1. Invite Real Conversations and be Open to the Results

Ask uncomfortable questions and be prepared not to like the answers. You don’t have to wait until you have solutions to deal with unanticipated realities; part of managing through change is creating an environment where people feel comfortable sharing difficulties before they blow up into major problems.

  1. Recognize your own Limitations

Being vulnerable with your co-workers establishes a relationship on a human level. A relationship based on the personal, as well as the professional, fosters empathy. When leadership signals the priority in self-care, it filters down through the organization, reinforcing employee engagement.

Don’t get me wrong, no one will be happier to move out of this phase of 2020, but crises are designed to show us what has been too-long neglected. Make sure instead of re-trenching just to get through, you also take stock of what seeds may be planted in those trenches.

Barbara Milhizer