What COVID-19 has taught me about transitioning from the frontlines to the workforce

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Bryon Blohm Cybersecurity and Privacy Director, PwC US

As we remember and honor those service members we have lost, the Memorial Day holiday is the perfect time to also reflect on how our culture embraces today’s service members and celebrates our ability to serve our country in times of need.

When the President issued a state of emergency in March, members of our Armed Services, including the Army Reserves and National Guard, were activated to help augment state and local resources. I was among the Reservists called to active duty. As a senior leader in the National Disaster Management System of the Army — a unit composed of Reservists like myself — I was part of the team helping lead our country’s tactical response to COVID-19. This means it was time for a number of our PwC team members (Paul Spranger, Adam Eccleston, Tim Stoner and myself) to step out of our civilian role of advising clients on cybersecurity challenges at PwC and into our active duty role of planning and coordinating a response to a public health crisis.

Stepping out of civilian life and into active duty can be challenging and rewarding. As long as I’ve been a part of the Army, the Medical Branch has never led an emergency response stateside. For us to quickly develop the right strategies for helping with disease containment and augmenting hospital services in our hardest-hit cities, we needed constant communication across a diverse population of health care professionals and government leaders from different geographies, backgrounds, and areas of expertise.

COVID-19 has been an unprecedented threat in every possible way. When I was in the Army full-time and deployed for tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, my experience was more expected and closer to my training. But during a public health crisis, the problems didn’t look like traditional combat. The risks were new — running out of PPE, needing more ventilators, moving critically ill patients to hospitals with more capacity. Every day brought a challenge to overcome. The people responding to COVID — first responders, hospital staff, infrastructure support staff, and community leaders — couldn’t be better. They brought a deep desire to solve problems, intelligence, care and positive attitudes to bear in order to respond.

I’ve learned a lot from these past few months — lessons and reminders that I can apply to both my civilian career at PwC and military position. Working with nonprofits, hospital administration, state leaders, support staff, and nurses — each with unique systems and procedures — helped underscore the importance of building strong relationships and trust. I also now more deeply appreciate the value of diversity and a culture of inclusion — with diverse perspectives, it's incredibly important that everyone feels a sense of belonging in a work environment. It’s something we prioritize at PwC — D&I is at the core of our purpose as an organization — and it is absolutely essential while on duty.

As Reservists and Guardsmen transition back to the civilian workforce this summer, I know we will be bringing back new perspectives from our most recent experience. Part of my remit as one of the leaders of the PwC Veterans Affinity Network will be to use my perspective to help further evolve how we help transition service members back into their work for the firm. It is vital that Reservists and Veterans are welcomed back to a culture of belonging and inclusion.

To get there, perhaps the most important thing employers and colleagues can do is to encourage and have open conversations. Communicating and inviting open conversations may sound straightforward enough, but some conversations can actually be uncomfortable and difficult — particularly over certain topics or in times of crisis or pressure. Open conversation is vital to help get to a place of understanding and empathy between colleagues, clients, or other critical relationships. If people understand each other better, empathize with one another, then everyone can feel like they are valued and belong.

Transitioning back to their civilian careers can be a challenge for service members. When a team member is out on military service away from their place of civilian employment, the circumstance can be viewed by others as a disruption to revenue or process rather than a value add to the community or opportunity to support the country.

As I prepare to re-enter the civilian workforce myself, I feel fortunate to have an employer who is mindful and inclusive to Reservists and Veterans. To all my fellow service members, thank you for your service and commitment to our country today, and every day. To all my fellow civilian colleagues, thank you for enabling us to do what we do by providing a workplace where we feel free to bring our experiences and our unique perspective to work.

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