Providing essential care with empathy, agility and strength in a pandemic

According to the Pew Research Center, between February 2020 and February 2021, more than 4 million workers exited the labor force. This sudden contraction was a profound hardship for many Central Ohio businesses, forcing companies to scale back offerings or reduce hours.

For human services organizations, however, limiting services was not an option. Their frontline employees are literal lifelines for people, providing essential care to individuals and families with intellectual and developmental disabilities — a community especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

But businesses can continue to thrive in the face of crisis by embracing change with clients and customers, and prioritizing communication with employees. Leaning into these tactics helped our organization launch a first-of-its-kind in Ohio health care center and nearly double the number of counties offering our services during the pandemic.

Early on, there was a sense that businesses were holding their breath, waiting for things to return to normal. Looking at parallels with the 1918 pandemic, it was clear that wouldn’t be the case — and that COVID-19 would spark a permanent shift. That meant shifting along with it, or risk getting left in the past.

Before the pandemic, telehealth was still an emerging tool. COVID-19 acted as a catalyst, forcing the industry to fully embrace the technology. When the pandemic hit and many in-person services were put on pause, existing virtual platforms were able to offer a host of programs previously only available in person. And while it wouldn’t be the same experience, that didn’t mean it couldn’t be a great experience in its own right. It was up to health care professionals to find a way.

Resilience and adaptability abounded as clinicians went to work developing a new virtual curriculum. They created YouTube videos, wrote and illustrated picture books, sought out community volunteers to lead workshops and more. Through it all, a common mantra was, “That’s the way we did it, but is that the way we have to do it?” The result was a huge success, leveraging existing infrastructure and limited staff to allow for reconnection with people in the safety of their homes. Not every new idea was a home run, but not every turn at bat has to be to win the game.

Candid, two-way internal communication makes this virtual pivot possible. While many admin teams could work seamlessly remotely, direct service providers had to go into the office. In order to make sure they didn’t feel abandoned, many leaders continued to go in, as well, and make periodic socially distanced pop-in visits to thank everyone and cheer them on.

Online fireside chats helped in sharing updates and words of encouragement. Deliberately keeping this casual and authentic made people appreciate the outreach, leading to open dialogue about frontline needs. These exchanges provided invaluable insights that guided overall response to the pandemic and helped keep morale high during a challenging time.

In many instances, it wasn’t the pandemic itself that has strained businesses these last 20 months; it was rigidity in the face of a crisis. Companies did not entirely escape its impact and subsequent labor shortage, but flexibility kept them moving forward. By remaining responsive to the needs of employees and embracing opportunities for change, businesses have emerged stronger and better prepared to meet whatever challenges tomorrow may bring.

Patrick Maynard, Ph.D. is president & CEO of I Am Boundless Inc.