The Art of Communicating in a Post-Pandemic Environment
In the overview to a survey by The National Council of Volunteer Organisations (NCVO) in the year 2017/18, some four in ten people (38%) had volunteered formally at least once with a group, club or organisation. Mostly these are people who have some connection via friends or family such as after-school activities, sports teams or charities. By comparison, informal volunteering which includes a wider range of activities and is defined as giving help to someone who is not a relative, was represented by some 53% of people who volunteered at least once with 27% doing so on a regular basis. This group includes people volunteering at foodbanks, homeless shelters, hospitals and care homes for example, but they also include a majority of workplace chaplains.
In his book, The Art of Communicating (the title of which I have borrowed for this blog) the great Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, outlines the necessary strategies and techniques for healthy and mindful communication which will most likely assume greater importance as we enter a changed and for many, unfamiliar industrial and economic landscape. For chaplains communication, particularly the skill of listening, is a key requirement of their role whatever the circumstances. As Hanh puts it in his book, “I am listening to this person with only one purpose: to give this person a chance to suffer less”. This mantra should be engraved on our hearts and our minds whenever we minister to those whom we are called to serve. Prior to the lockdown this was something which was theoretically easy to do whenever we visited our regular workplaces. Post-lockdown or post-pandemic there are already indications that those workplaces may look a whole lot different certainly in the short term and perhaps more permanently. How many of those currently on furlough will have no jobs to return to as businesses seek to re-structure in the face of new and probably harsher economic realities? The dispute between British Airways and the UNITE union over plans by the airline to make staff redundant and then re-employ them on less generous terms, is but one example of how some companies rightly or wrongly, will seek to face these new realities.
Those who currently work from home may be reluctant to return to a workplace where technology means they can do their jobs without the hassle of the daily commute. Others in the same position may hanker for a return to familiar surroundings and the camaraderie all of which brings its own feelings of anxiety for the individuals concerned, as well as for management in responding to them sympathetically while ensuring business priorities are also taken into account. For those whose jobs involve being in designated places such as manufacturing or logistics, the problem is one of ensuring safe working practices until we can be sure that the pandemic has finally disappeared.
How should we as workplace chaplains react to these new working environments both remote and fixed? Chapter seven of Art of Communicating, focuses on creating community in the world because it is through community where lasting change for the good of society can be made. Both community and communication have their roots in the Latin commuicare meaning to impart, share or make common. Therefore lasting change can only be made through joint action not just individual ones. There is a reference to the belief that creating a sustainable environment or a more just society is achieved by physical action or advances in technology. But it argues, without the element of a connected community nothing substantial can be achieved.
Perhaps this is where we as chaplains can make a difference as we are or should be seen as being bridges for connecting people not just in the ordinary times, but in times of uncertainty fuelled by a crisis such as we are living through now. As the future workplace changes – and perhaps not always in a positive way – never was it more important to be able to reach out and encourage that spirit of communal communication. This applies equally to those who are still furloughed as well as those who have been allowed to return to work, or have been fortunate enough to be in positions where they were still able to work.
Our listening skills will become even more important to ensure that we not only provide that all-important deep listening Thich Nhat Hanh refers to ensure less suffering, but to create that community of people who can come together and work not only for the betterment of each other and their workplaces, but for a wider society that will still need its formal and informal volunteers across our communities, whatever the future may bring.
 The Art of Communicating, p.44
 The Art of Communicating, p.129
 The Art of Communicating, p.130