Michelle Norris, executive vice president, external affairs and strategic partnerships, National Church Residences
Michelle Norris, executive vice president, external affairs and strategic partnerships, National Church Residences

As 2020 began, many of us had concerns about what the year would bring. Equity pricing, rent escalations, occupancy trends, and the need to quickly create more affordable housing were just some worrisome issues. Few, if any, would have been thinking about the obscure virus called COVID-19 and the enormous impact it would have by the end of the first quarter and beyond.

But like a tablecloth snatched from under silverware, COVID-19 yanked our everyday business issues out from under us. In my lifetime, the concept of a paradigm shift has never been so profoundly felt. Its impact will be experienced for years to come in every aspect of society. The consequences for our own organizations will be great as well.

It will take months, if not years, to return to normal, though it is likely that normal will not be normal” again. There will be significant loss, sadness, and grief. Yet this crisis is no different than other historic crises—it brings opportunities as well. At National Church Residences, we already are seeing new windows of opportunities birthed by the urgency of the pandemic.

Silo-busting: It is the natural tendency in any organization to operate within silos, and it is important to break down these silos even in “normal” times. The urgency delivered by a pandemic, however, makes it critical to break them down. From the early stages of this crisis, we established an interdisciplinary team that met daily. This team provided timely and collaborative instructions to our field staff whether they worked in affordable housing, assisted living, skilled nursing, or home services. The task force itself was a band of equals, with corporate rank eliminated to help spark ideas and proposals from everyone.

Communication: Our workforce, with over 2,000 on the front line, needed guidance quickly. Complications included the inconsistent spread of the virus geographically and the equally inconsistent advice and regulations emerging from all levels of government on response. In addition, our different operational teams had unique needs to ensure continued health and safety for all we serve. For instance, demand for PPE inventory was much higher for the assisted-living communities compared with independent living communities. The task force began daily emails to inform, encourage, and motivate all. Though some instructions were unique for a particular operational area, a significant majority of the messages were important for everyone. “Communicate, communicate, communicate” is wise guidance in such a time.

Leadership: Leaders rose up ready to serve from throughout our organization, often paired with other leaders they had never worked with before the pandemic. Creative problem-solving emerged. One group created a fun, inspirational campaign to encourage everyone to wear masks way before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directives materialized. They ordered masks with the company logo, created an all-staff contest, drew up posters, and launched a public service announcement (PSA) campaign. The expression “not my job” disappeared.

As the pandemic lives on and eventually subsides, the expression “hindsight is 2020” will take on new meaning for us all. The year 2020 has already been crowded with adversity but met with courage. The dedication of our front-line staff during these historic times are inspiring, and they have my deepest gratitude. Going forward, my wish for all of us in the affordable housing sector is a renewed appreciation for the work of our teams, a re-energized commitment to find new opportunities, and a firm resolution to encourage our rising leaders of tomorrow, not only in these moments of crisis, but also in the calmer times to come.