“COVID-19”—Oh, how things change in what seems like an
instant in time.
What seemed like a contained outbreak in a faraway land is
now at the epicenter of daily life in most countries of the world. Businesses,
employees, customers, industries, governments, routines, and conventions—all
are being disrupted like we’ve not seen before in most of our lifetimes.
“Social distancing” – while the meaning is obvious once you
think about it, I have to admit I’ve used the phrase more often in the past
week than in my whole lifetime.
And more importantly, I am making daily decisions based on
the real and perceived physical distance between myself and other human beings.
Never in a hundred years would I have expected to make the
decision to skip my three-year-old grand-daughter’s birthday party, but it wasn’t
advisable to get on an airplane headed for Seattle and the venue in Kirkland,
Getting on a plane, renting a car, heading to the grocery
store, visiting our favorite restaurant, filling up at the gas station, shaking
hands with the nice lady at the front desk of the community center. Inviting the
repairman into your house, meeting a friend for lunch, shopping at Costco,
riding the bus, badging in at work—these are things we have done for decades
without giving it a second thought.
So many cautionary and risk-mitigation decisions and behaviors
are out of the norm—employees working from home, cancelling the cruise
vacation, being super-careful to practice personal hygiene, while monitoring
health and problematic symptoms. Subscribing to government restrictions imposed
this week, no one in my family is visiting my elderly mother at the
assisted-living residence. It all makes perfect sense.
However, there is one unintended consequence that many of us
may have, in this moment, forgotten. There is an entire population of workers whose
primary function is to interact person-to-person. The highly reputable Pew
Research firm estimates the U.S. service economy employs over 107 million
Regardless of innovations in technology, the server at
the restaurant, the gas station attendant, the hotel housekeeper and the
appliance-repair person don’t have the option of calling in sick, taking time off
or working from home. These are the workers at the backbone of our service
economy, paid on an hourly basis, but only for time worked. There is no
guarantee for these folks, only uncertainty, reduced hours, fewer tips, and heightened
“Social distancing” (staying six feet from others when interacting)
may be good for controlling the epidemic, but it’s a potential nightmare for
millions of workers who most likely live “paycheck to paycheck.”
You may work for an employer who is paying for virus
screenings. Or you may have seen media reports of companies subsidizing
small-business disruption caused by their employees working from home. A
restaurant chain has extended sick leave benefits beyond their policy. All good
examples of how we can rally to care for each other. If we really believe, as
so many employers say, that employees are our greatest asset, we will see more
of these examples of human kindness from leaders in all walks of life.
How can you help? Do not let social distancing become so
normative that you forget the average worker who didn’t ask for this, who
doesn’t get paid when you stay at home, and is caught between caring for their
personal health and financial breathing room. As appropriate, and if you are in
good health, frequent the retailer, the restaurant, the provider of services
you want and need.
Social distancing? Yes, but let’s also have a heart for
those who need “social kindness” too.
No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted (Aesop).
Go here for more coronavirus resources.
Mark Englizian is senior
strategy advisor for the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and Chair
of i4cp’s Total Rewards Leader
Board. He is the former CHRO of
the Walgreen Company and has also held senior HR roles at Amazon and Microsoft.
He currently advises Boards of Directors, CEOs and CHROs worldwide on human