By Alan Resnick
Like millions of Americans, I’m wrestling with the decision of whether or not to return to work as shelter-in-place rules are gradually lifted. Unlike the vast majority of Americans, however, I am remarkably fortunate in that my life situation is such that my calculus does not involve balancing my personal health against the cold realities of paying rent or a mortgage, putting food on the table, maintaining health insurance, or both finding and figuring out how to pay for child care with schools not open. It’s nearly impossible to imagine how excruciating this choice must be for so many people.
So I have the luxury of truly being able to choose whether or not to return to work. But the decision is still complex. By way of background, I conduct vocational assessments on a part-time basis for a human services organization. The purpose of these assessments is to identify possible career alternatives for individuals based on their cognitive functioning, occupational interests and aptitudes, and capacity for additional formal education or training. It is the perfect gig at this point in my life (I turn 70 in January). I average about 12 hours a week, so time is also available for volunteering, hobbies, and doing nothing at all. I make my own schedule, come and go as I please, conduct all administrative activities from home, am trusted implicitly by my boss, and attend no meetings. And I enjoy the clients I work with and the intellectual challenge of analyzing interview and test results and converting them into a report that presents a coherent picture of a person.
But it’s obvious that the current assessment process is loaded with risks to my personal safety, the safety of co-workers, the safety of clients, and, indirectly, all the people with whom we interact. There are dozens of potential infection risks in our current assessment process that need to be mitigated. Some of these are present for anyone who works outside of the home, such as the need to wear a mask at work. I’m assuming that our organization will mandate that clients wear masks too. And I’m certainly going to be wearing personal protection equipment. But I keep visualizing myself entering our reception area in a mask and gloves and asking: “Mr. Smith?” This seems more like the start of a colonoscopy than a vocational assessment.
Our intake process alone, which I barely gave a second thought to in the past, now looks absolutely terrifying. The client enters our facility (!), checks in with the receptionist (!), is handed an intake form (!), completes it, and returns it (!). I then head to the reception area, walk up to the client (!), introduce myself, shake hands (!), and take them back to my office. While walking shoulder to shoulder (!), I engage in some witty and lively verbal banter (“Did you have any trouble finding the facility? How was your weekend?”). We enter my office and sit at a round table that is approximately 42 inches in diameter (!). I explain the assessment process, answer any questions, offer a beverage (!), and then conduct a background interview. This represents just the first 45 minutes of the assessment. If I was in the movie The China Syndrome, I’d already be thrown into a decontamination room and hosed down.
Masks, while essential, create a special difficulty. Like any good interviewer, I listen for both what a person says and how they say it, because tone, volume, inflection, gesticulation, and facial expressions are much more reliable indicators of what a person is actually saying than are words. While it’s possible to pick up some cues from looking at the eyes alone, a mask makes it extremely difficult to tell if someone is smiling when sharing something that should make them happy or proud, frowning when disclosing something that should make them sad or angry, or even changing expression at all (and I have assessed people who have sat stone-faced over the course of a four-hour session).
Equally important, my wearing a mask limits my ability to communicate nonverbally with my client to establish and maintain rapport. They cannot see me smiling in admiration if they mention a special accomplishment, frowning in sympathy if they reveal a disappointment or personal failing, or grinning in enjoyment of a joke or funny story. (I suppose there is always the appreciative snort.)
Work-space risks are the easiest to resolve. A larger office would enable me to maintain appropriate social distance, as would a larger table. But I have no idea how I would administer paper-and-pencil tests when sitting six feet away from a person. Perhaps materials could be put in a Ziploc bag and pushed across the table with a yardstick or broomstick. A return Ziploc bag could be included in the client’s package, like the modern version of enclosing a postage-paid, self-addressed envelope.
So, it’s almost a certainty that paper-and-pencil tests will have to be eliminated. But there are certain parts of some tests in the current battery that cannot be completed electronically. This creates problems in both computing scores and interpreting results. And electronic testing, although safer in that it eliminates all face-to-face contact, also eliminates my ability to watch a person’s behavior during test completion, which is another rich source of assessment data. I’ve observed people talking to themselves while completing computerized tests, humming, swearing (either at themselves or at the screen), and displaying anxiety through twirling their hair, repeatedly clicking a ballpoint pen open and closed, cracking their knuckles, or rapidly bouncing a leg up and down.
While it’s clear to me that the assessment process can be fine-tuned to avoid health risks, what keeps gnawing at me is the impact of all these necessary modifications. There is very little research on how telepractice affects test scores. Many clients enter the assessment apprehensive about the process and how the results may impact their employment future. Masks, gloves, walking six feet apart from one another and sitting at opposite ends of a large conference room table don’t do much to create a warm and comfortable environment for people. And neither does a teleconference with a bunch of passwords and user names.
Clearly, there are employees like barbers and workers in meatpacking plants who face much greater health dangers than I do. But I remain undecided about returning to work and the clock’s ticking. Although I’ve reached the conclusion that I can do my job safely in the new normal, I’m not sure that I want to. Maybe I’m stubborn and resistant to change (I much prefer to think of myself as old school or a traditionalist). Or maybe it’s because the new job doesn’t sound like much fun.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.