In your life, if you are fortunate, you will have some people you trust and can rely on implicitly. A few of these may even be people you work with. Don’t get your hopes up too high, though. I mean “some” over the course of your entire career.
Now, you may be thinking, “My team is so awesome! We’re all like that! We run like clockwork.” Sure, sure. Save it for LinkedIn.
You’re going to work with a lot of different people, and you won’t achieve peak synergy with all of them. It doesn’t mean everyone else is terrible. Corporate life isn’t never-ending group work hell. Not… always.
Just like most people aren’t superhuman performers all the time, most people on teams will be reliable and trustworthy enough. Including you.
Having people you can rely on completely saves you time and work since they can handle pretty much anything that comes up. If something goes truly pear-shaped, you know they’ll have your back.
Having each other’s backs is arguably a more important trait than exceptional skills or knowledge. The other things can be developed over time, but you can’t mandate team members having each other’s backs. That’s built on trust, reliability and shared goals. It develops when people know that others would do the same, regardless of circumstances, and they experience how much better it makes life.
There’s no altruism here, however. At least part of why we buy in is because we also benefit.
It’s easier to develop this kind of camaraderie and environment when things are going well at the company and in the world. However, things have not been going well for some time. COVID, tech layoffs – a lot has been and still feels uncertain and worrisome.
It’s hard to rely on people who might not be around, and it’s hard not to be resentful if you had an amazing team dynamic… and now you’re left with the guy no one can stand. Plus you no longer trust your company or management.
We’re not really different from other animals when our social groups are disrupted, either at work or in the rest of life. We know breaking up or killing off groups of elephants, wolves or other animals is bad news for the health, well-being and general function of the remaining members individually and as a group. You also don’t try to form new groups by just throwing together everyone who’s left and hoping for the best.
A layoff doesn’t usually kill anyone, but it does kill team dynamics and company culture and throw teamwork and productivity into disarray. That peak synergy is also virtually impossible to recover or rebuild once it’s gone. Realizing that is one reason people may leave, aside from increased workload, worries about more layoffs and the other usual catalysts.
Then there’s COVID, which has made a bigger mess than almost any other historical corporate upheaval. I don’t mean the remote working or too many Zooms or any of that. Remote teams are just as capable of peak synergy.
Co-workers got sick. They still get sick sometimes. You have very likely been sick. Maybe you were pretty much back to normal after a couple of weeks. Maybe you’re still not back to normal. Maybe you never will be. Maybe there is no normal.
Even if you never got sick or it was mild, you might not have been OK, or might not be OK now. Mental health has taken a beating, too, and we’re even worse at taking care of that than we are at protecting people’s physical health. We also have no idea what the full extent of the long-term damage will be, to minds as well as bodies.
In the before times, it wasn’t a big deal when someone was off work sick. Others would pick up the slack and some things would just have to wait until they got back. But what if they never came back? Some people’s co-workers have died. We do not get training on how to keep doing our job and someone else’s job, while also having to work on hiring to replace someone who may also have been a friend.
What about those who survived, but didn’t come back for a long time? How do you figure out staffing when you have no idea if or when someone will return, or what they’ll be able to do?
What about those who’ve come back, but are a lot different? Trouble remembering things, getting tired easily, can’t work full-time, still often get too sick to work…
The average workplace is designed for robust, able-bodied go-getters who can hustle at least 40 hours a week. Many companies aren’t great about disability accommodation even when the people who need it can otherwise do the full-time hustle.
People who can’t hustle anymore aren’t going to do very well in the average workplace. Accommodating them costs time and money, and the ROI very likely will not be a fully productive full-time employee.
They’re just not reliable anymore, you see. But it’s hardly their fault.
Before the pandemic, I think the closest similar situation we had was mat leave. It’s not that people think no one should have babies, but someone going on mat leave creates challenges for the team and the manager. Even more so if they take mat leave multiple times. We still aren’t great at dealing with mat leave.
Parents also get sick more, thanks to kids, and sick leave not being infinite, I guarantee there are and will be people who come to work sick and spread it around.
Moms: also not reliable. But again, is it their fault?
It’s not hard to have someone’s back when they’re having one rough day, or are only off for a week, or temporarily struggling with a difficult project. But what about when it’s four weeks? Or months? What if they’re never around anymore for more than a few days at a time?
Maintaining a friendship with someone who struggles with a chronic illness can be hard. But the motivation of friendship and more personal communication helps make it work.
What’s the motivation with a co-worker? Especially one with whom you just have an average relationship, not that rare level of trust and reliance? Or one you’ve never liked and who may not pull their weight?
It makes people sound petty and heartless, and most of us aren’t. But few of us can maintain high levels of altruism indefinitely. We also don’t tend to do super well with uncertainty, especially chronic uncertainty and other negative effects. Even if it’s nobody’s fault.
One of the greatest aspects of those relationships where you can fully trust and rely on someone is that there is little to no uncertainty, and you avert and divert negative effects for each other.
Here’s the thing, though. We have to rely on each other whether or not the people are our favourites or the circumstances are perfect. Whether or not there’s a lot in it for us. We can’t leave people behind.
It’s the only way things are going to get done. It’s also the only way companies and society as a whole are going to survive. Remember having each other’s backs?
Things feel better and less uncertain for a lot of people now, at least compared to, say, 2021. But there are millions of people for whom life is now a whole lot more uncertain, who probably often feel like no one has their backs.
We don’t have good enough safety nets to give them strong options other than hustling as best they can. Honestly, we could really use that whole Victorian vibe of long seaside convalescences. Barring that, we need to trust and rely on each other more, whether or not everyone can meet traditional expectations of reliability. AI toys ain’t gonna solve this one.
It may not affect me or you today or tomorrow, but there is zero guarantee that life won’t randomly run you over some day. Then you may find yourself unreliable – through no fault of your own.
There but for the grace of… us, go we.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.