Dancing Backward in High Heels: Communication, Clarity and COVID-19

By JefferyGoldman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35425135

This month many of us (the lucky ones) return to work in spaces we left four months ago. Depending on our own health and the health of those we care for, we may return full-time or touch base only intermittently while our real work life continues via Zoom. In either instance, our work lives are fundamentally altered, not just because we’re living through a pandemic, but because communication has changed.

Workplaces run on a hierarchy of communication from formal and serious–the annual letter from the museum president or HR stipulating your terms of employment–to all-staff emails, to more personal emails or Google chats. In our old lives, that hierarchy also included face-to-face meetings, and spontaneous hallway conversations. The latter two are becoming as rare as dial phones. And even when they take place, presumably half our face is masked so only our eyes convey emotion.

Then there’s Zoom. Could we have survived without it these last four months? Heck no. But it’s still challenging. I don’t know about you, but in my former life, I never thought about what direction I looked in staff meetings. My gaze moved naturally between speakers and listeners, and my note taking. But with Zoom, what was once your entire team together in a room is now reduced to faces in squares in their kitchens or home offices with the occasional pet or toddler wandering on screen. So when you speak to the whole, you’re actually speaking to eight individuals in eight individual spaces. It’s distracting, complicated, and occasionally confusing. Sometimes you don’t know what to focus on.

My daughter once had a science teacher whose opening assignment was to ask everyone to write one paragraph describing how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Believing it was an easy assignment, most students dashed off the paragraph in a few minutes. The teacher, however, showed up in class with a loaf of bread, jelly, peanut butter, and knives. Without attributing the author, she read each paragraph aloud while  following their directions. The results were hilarious, but devastating. Knives wound up between slices of bread, and jelly or peanut butter were sometimes forgotten entirely. The message was clear: Directions need to be delivered in precise, understandable language or you can’t even make a simple sandwich.  Now imagine how complicated actually running your museum, program or department will be when you’re communicating virtually and actually while masked and six-feet apart. Kind of like dancing backwards in high heels.

So…to make sure the sandwiches get made the way you want them, here are some simple suggestions for improved communication in the museum workplace:

  • If some or all of your team still works from home, check in frequently. It doesn’t have to be long. A check-in that mimics a stop in an office doorway is fine, asking are you okay or is there anything I can help with?
  • Even if they’re brief, set regular meeting times. In a world without much face-to-face contact, it’s important staff have meetings they can count on.
  • Given that the post-COVID-world changes in a heartbeat, and ambiguity is practically a watchword, make sure your team knows they can bring you problems as they develop. You may want to consider borrowing an academic tradition and hold office hours. These can be real and held outside if weather permits or on Zoom at the same time each week. That way staff can always find you for a one-on-one that can be handled in under 15 minutes.
  • Don’t forget recognition and applause. One of the many reasons life in the pandemic is hard is our daily interaction with colleagues is MIA. And it’s not just personal conversation or office gossip we long for. We miss colleagues telling us what they enjoy about our work, congratulating us when something goes well or giving us a high five. As leaders we need to remember that, and recognize staff achievements–you ran your first marathon alone, wearing a mask or your department’s digital takeover was the best ever–and say congratulations.
  • And last, remember empathy. You may be powered up about your organization’s opening, but be mindful not everyone will find the return to work a piece of cake. Some may be worried about loved ones, struggling with childcare arrangements or processing how to deal with racism at work. Keep your door–metaphorical or actual– open and listen.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. Since this spring’s string of racist murders, many students have started Instagram pages where they can reflect on what really went on behind the sunny and artificially diverse photos on school and college web pages. In the same vein, there’s now #changethemuseum. It’s jolting, heartbreaking, and anger inducing. If your organization has an HR department, you might want to share it. And if you are ever about to suggest an employee solve a workplace interpersonal problem on their own, give this page another look just to understand how horrific things can be.


One Comment on “Dancing Backward in High Heels: Communication, Clarity and COVID-19”

  1. Nice work, as always, Joan. Even for us consultants, I read this realizing how easily I’ve become sequestered with all the added at-home responsibilities and contagion issues out there. I think there are good ways to adapt this advice to that life as well. We can’t do this work isolated. I hope you are well and healthy.


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