Navigating and Initiating New Norms in the Workplace

By Gayle Capozzalo, FACHE, and Susan Turney, MD, FACP, FACPME
Published in partnership with the American College of Healthcare Executives

As vaccine numbers continue to climb and organizations tentatively, optimistically schedule in-person gatherings, we’ve been reflecting on what it means to “go back to normal.” Thus far, going back to normal in America appears to be a resumption of battles that so many of us have been fighting for decades—against racism, sexism and division. Since pandemic restrictions began to ease in early 2021, there have been nearly 4,000 attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, a 73% increase in mass shootings, and we’ve entered a “shecession”—a statistically significant increase in unemployment among women—that is setting the clock back on gender parity in every domain we inhabit.

These social ills show up in the workplace, as well, and in no space more than healthcare. As the author of a recent Medium column pointed out, every day, healthcare workers are charged with healing the victims of inequity whileexperiencing it themselves. That said, healthcare organizations are uniquely positioned to take the lead on disrupting deleterious norms that have festered for too long. And we can start in our own workplaces, restructuring systems in ways that elevate compassion, emphasize equity and shape purpose-driven cultures.

Here are six steps leaders can take to build back better.

  1. Establish a reentry process for employees. To ease return-to-work for employees, look to the military [SNB1] for effective processes, where one-on-one reentry interviews are required for all those returning from service, with standard questions to make sure you’re capturing the right information. Go over any available employee assistance resources with your teams, and make sure you’re offering uninterrupted time to listen to their experiences of the last 18 months. We may have all been in the same storm during the pandemic, but we were weathering it in very different boats. It’s critical for every person’s story to be heard.
  1. Apply a trauma-informed approach to return-to-work. From the killing of George Floyd to the tremendous loss of life from COVID-19 and the million milestones each of us missed, people are grieving. While we may be at various points along the spectrum of processing that grief, it’s important to honor pain and provide spaces for peer support, meaning-making and comfort with uncomfortable conversations. That also means leaning into hard feelings as they manifest in the workplace and cutting coworkers slack for how those emotions show up. Triggers come in myriad forms, and manifest differently with the range of identities represented in your organization.
  1. Rethink work-life integration. During the last year, we’ve learned to accept children in the backgrounds of Zoom calls and colleagues needing to reschedule to take care of elderly parents. If we could show grace then, we can carry on that acceptance now. Consider what was—and was not—working prior to the pandemic and what adjustments you have an opportunity to make. Moreover, use this moment of upheaval to finally tackle those big hairy audacious goals (a term coined by the authors of the book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies) to create a more balanced, welcoming workplace—and make sure you’re monitoring the impact of those initiatives.
  1. Hold listening sessions with employee resource and/or affinity groupsData suggests that employee resource groups effectively cultivate a climate of belonging and innovation. They also provide leaders opportunities to glean insights on culturally relevant and responsive solutions to long-standing workplace problems. If you don’t currently have ERGs, consider starting them. There’s never been a more important time to create safe spaces for people to be heard. Try developing a long-term cadence of these sessions for leaders, as well. Done well, they can be a powerful vehicle to address concerns from your most valued employees and show teammates that their ideas and experiences matter.
  1. Be explicit in communicating with your teams. Whether you’re in a large, matrixed health system or a small clinic, opacity between leadership and staff (either intentionally or inadvertent) is too often norm, and decisions are routinely wrapped in filtered, benign messaging. Let’s break that habit. Organizations and nations that outperformed their peers during the pandemic have one thing in common, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: leadership spoke plain, clear truth. We can use that insight to shape performance post-COVID to address the epidemic of inequity. Rather than talk about diversity, talk about anti-racism. Consider swapping out “social determinants of health” for what we really mean: power, poverty and patriarchy. Embracing precise language signals that your organization is ready to engage in action and that you respect your employees.
  1. Celebrate. In a poignant column authored by Girlynda Gonzales, RN, and published by The Carol Emmott Foundation, Gonzales asks the question, “What if 2020 was really beautiful?” While we’re still moving through the stages of grief to reach that sacred space of meaning, there were arresting examples of courage, creativity and connection in this darkness. We need to hold up those triumphs as we cultivate inclusive communities at work and beyond.

From the telehealth pivot to the fastest mass vaccination programs in history, the COVID crisis reminded us that change can happen overnight. What we formerly saw as the impossible was, in many cases, just a matter of will. Similarly, creating a deeply equitable, employee-centered culture in the workplace isn’t just a long game; there are steps we can take now to reimagine our places of work as places of belonging and fulfilment. There has never been a better time to begin this endeavor—nor a worthier pursuit.


Gayle Capozzalo, FACHE, is the executive director of The Equity Collaborative, a program of The Carol Emmott Foundation; Susan Turney, MD, FACP, FACPME, is the CEO of the Marshfield Clinic.