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The Practice of Socializing in a COVID-real World

“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, Washington. Duh.

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 (the few essential workers who are going into  workplaces now) —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 people.

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 anxiety.

“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 their employers close, and find themselves caught between caring for their personal health and financial breathing room. Most states or cities are allowing for take-out or food delivery by restaurants. We can also purchase gift cards for future use--these steps allow us to continue to support businesses. 

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 capital matters.