Firefighting in the workplace

With 22 years in operations, Brian Zotti, Chief Operating Officer of Options For All (OFA), shed some insight into what it means to firefight in the workplace. 

Firefighters are generally perceived to be heroic and necessary for safety in our communities. Although this is true for fires threatening our homes, this should not necessarily be the case in the workplace. Not all fires can be avoided, but you can take steps to anticipate them. 

Fires in the workplace are unplanned distractions that derail team’s focus from their goals. Ultimately firefighting can be an addiction. This addiction happens because the fire in the workplace allows employees to assert themselves to put them out. Much like our community heroes saving lives, putting out a fire in the workplace makes an employee feel like a hero. Which on its own becomes a problem that is often fanned by the praise of teammates recognizing the support and help provided in putting out nothing more than a distraction. 

“What we’re doing is rewarding the act of firefighting instead of anticipating the risks that are likely to impact us,” says Brian. 

This continued praise motivates employees to lean in and take action. We seek that recognition from our peers and feel heroic for resolving a distraction. We all know that we view our community firefighters as real heroes because they protect citizens from dangerous fires, not for rescuing stray cats in trees. We should be valuing the prevention of conflicts in the workplace, not putting them out. 

Encouraging behaviors that help prevent crises in the workplace enable companies to be better at achieving their goals. Effective organizations align the priorities and tasks of their employees with their strategic goals. Instead of trying to be heroic and dispute the problem in the office, we need to embolden the idea of how we use our time and resist the urge to engage in distractions, and instead reward and praise employees for accomplishing objectives that address organizational goals. 

To achieve their goals, organizations must avoid creating a culture of putting out fires. There’s a natural tendency to reward those that “save the day. “And while there is a need to manage risks and issues that arise unexpectedly, these situations must be the exception, not the norm. Ways in which organizations can avoid becoming engulfed in a pattern of putting out fires include empowering employees at all levels to identify and mitigate risks before they become issues. Second, organizations can and should examine problems to determine whether they could’ve been anticipated and how to put proper risk management practices into place in the future. Third, performance and recognition systems should be anchored towards adequate planning, risk management, and execution. 

“If someone more senior than you asks you to do something that is not aligned with the organization’s goals, do you have the right to push back?… and my answer is you have every right,” says Brian. 

How can you check to see if you’re spending your time advancing the right goals? Take a glimpse at your calendar from last week. What meetings did you have scheduled? Were those meetings aligned with your organization’s goals? Did you spend your time on those goal-advancing meetings? Were there unplanned meetings that you found yourself engaged in? Were those meetings aligned with advancing your organization’s goals? These questions are what you want to ask yourself to create a clear vision and strategy to stay on track. If you stay focused on your goals, fires are less likely to happen in the workplace. 

Like Smokey the Bear says – “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced every organization to rethink how they meet the needs of those they serve. For Options For All, this meant finding new, innovative ways to connect our participants to staff and resources. We quickly revolutionized our process to create alternative services that allowed for remote learning and engagement. The aim was to deliver a meaningful curriculum that reinforced wellness and gave program participants a sense of inclusion. We wanted to improve our participants’ quality of life and address the challenges of social isolation and emotional disconnection. Now, participants can interact with each other and their Direct Service Professionals in a safe, virtual environment. According to OFA Engagement Coach Denice Patron, “It’s truly been a whirlwind, but we have been able to support and deliver services consistently and safely since the start of the public health crisis.   

With the initial hurdle of moving to remote services met, the next objective was to provide the necessary technology to connect to participants who needed it. In August of 2020, Options For All held its inaugural Bow Ties & Sandals Gala, a virtual event that featured music, entertainment, and even a delicious, safely-delivered meal. Through the incredible support of gala attendees, we raised funds to purchase 300 iPads to be distributed to participants. “When we say ‘Options For All’, we mean it, said Hillarie Holcomb, OFA Marketing & Communications Manager. “Technology will no longer be a barrier for our participants”, continued Holcomb. Each individual’s needs have always been a top priority at Options for All. The purchase of these iPads helps ensure that both instructors and participants can continue building skills and achieving their goals.  

Even with the unexpected switch from in-person to remote services, participants have genuinely thrived in this new, virtual environment. In 2020, 70% of OFA participants received remote services, logging over 11 million minutes in distance learning sessions. Thanks to the generosity of our incredible supporters, donors, and staff, Options For All has safely connected to participants —one iPad at a time.    

Want to learn more about how OFA is connecting participants virtually? Check out this video and our 2020 Annual Report!