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  • Writer's pictureLouise Carnachan

While You Were Gone

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

Many workers are returning to old employers in a new world. The furlough trigger was pulled quickly and (depending on the company’s circumstances) re-entry may be just as rapid. Meanwhile, others kept their jobs working from home with no guarantees of how and when they’ll be back to the physical workplace. Offices have been rearranged, waiting rooms are now a thing of the past, and restaurants are reconfigured. In just over two months a lot has changed.

While many went on unpaid leave, others were deemed “essential” and retained their positions. Those who remained in the trenches likely feel a bond with others who were there. A crisis will do that. They pitched in and did everybody’s job, kept things running. They made decisions on the fly under novel circumstances. Some of those changes will stick and ultimately impact colleagues who return. Those who were physically present in the workplace might think, “While we were here saving the day you were eating popcorn in your PJ’s and watching Netflix.” Returning employees may be angry about the imposition of new work requirements. We make up stories about each other, and not with empathy. Everyone has an account of their experience whether they were at work or at home. What we think we know about someone else is often wrong.

Decades ago, I was asked to facilitate a session after a strike which stands out as one of the hardest days of my consulting career. Strikes are synonymous with lack of trust and understanding. They generate anger. Everyone gets hurt and the aftereffects linger. Once the contract is signed, people are supposed to go back to work as if nothing happened. Well, a lot happened. This meeting was between coworkers who’d picketed and those who’d crossed the line.

I stood inside the door of a large meeting room as fifty colleagues of all job classifications filed in. I tried to engage them in brief conversation as they arrived; they were silent. The first to show up stood against the wall and that set the tone. They formed a perimeter guard ignoring the tables and chairs. I decided if it was going to be uncomfortable, I might as well model being vulnerable, so I dragged a chair into the middle of room and sat down.

I started by saying I knew some had crossed the picket line and others had been on the line, each had their own reasons. No experience was more just or worthy than another. Reuniting was difficult and uncomfortable for everyone. We were going to hear each person’s abbreviated story addressing the question, “What was it like for you during the strike?” No comments allowed, questions only for clarification. We weren’t there to fix the situation or anyone’s feelings, we were witnesses. I called on the first person and we went around the room from there. As they spoke there were tears, anger, regrets, pride. To my surprise, no one left the room.

At the conclusion of each person’s sharing I said, “thank you.” There was no attempt at resolution because there was none to be had. We heard fifty versions of the strike story. I said something encouraging at the end, but they knew it was up to them to find a way forward, to be able to work together and rebuild trust.

A couple of years later, I heard that particular group had done better reintegrating than those in other locations where there hadn’t been a similar process. I swear it’s the power of stories. My counsel is this for reincorporating the furloughed with those who never left: ask for and listen to each other’s experiences. Don’t try to fix feelings or tie things up with a bow. Just listen.

What pandemic related story have you heard that surprised you? Please respond in the comment box below.

Sending you appropriately physically distanced encouragement—and a reminder that continued vigilance with your virus protection measures is still

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