The pandemic changed the way we work in very profound and wide-ranging ways. Some people immediately became remote workers, navigating the challenges of blending their home and work lives. Others kept reporting to their place of employment, facing myriad concerns ranging from safety to new demands and ways of working.
Facing these changes and challenges was no small task. They changed us in a number of ways.
As vaccination rates rise, mask requirements are dropped, offices open, and life begins to look a bit like it did in “before times” in much of the U.S., it’s time to think about what’s next. We risk losing some valuable shifts if we don’t move forward with some introspection. Fast Company asked leaders in different areas what we should take with us as we head back to the workplace.
1. Protecting your worth and well-being
Going through the pandemic has been like “life boot camp,” says speaker and podcast host Luvvie Ajayi Jones, author of Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual. Being forced to slow down showed many how burned out they were from the frenetic pace of work. It also crystallized what people need to feel supported and valued. And they demanded those things. “People have started asking for more in the workplace, whether it’s more money, a title change, or generally advocating for ourselves and taking action to fight fears that have held us back from getting what we want in the past,” she says.
She hopes that the advocacy also extends to taking better care of ourselves. “Now, I hope we know that we need to find time to relax, outside of when we’re sick—or avoiding a global pandemic,” she says. (Something to leave behind? Handshakes, she says. We’re probably healthier without them.)
2. Showing vulnerability
When you’re in the middle of an important videoconference and your cat hops up on the back of your chair or there’s household chaos in the background, it’s hard not to feel a little bit vulnerable. That vulnerability can lead to connection, says Carole Robin, who teaches Stanford University’s wildly popular Interpersonal Dynamics class and is coauthor of Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships With Family, Friends, and Colleagues. When you allow yourself to open up to someone else, you build stronger relationships. “So if you’re willing to let me in a little bit on what’s going on for you, then you’ve taken that risk, then I’m more likely to reciprocate,” she says.
Robin says that, for some, the structured nature of videoconferencing has made it difficult to cultivate those close relationships that happen in the office, but she hopes that we’ll get better at it in hybrid workplaces. The next time the kids are screaming in the background or the cat jumps into the Zoom field, use the opportunity to connect. “Say, ‘Oh, man, you have a cat. I do too. My cat’s been the source of so much comfort to me,'” she says. “Disclosure begets disclosure.”
The resilience so many have shown during the pandemic is something that shouldn’t be forgotten, she says. “Let’s hang on to that knowledge and let it inform us in making more courageous choices to step outside our comfort zone in service of deeper, richer relationships and a more meaningful life,” she adds.
3. Increasing transparency and honesty
The word “unprecedented” became cliché when describing the pandemic. “Because there were so many changes unfolding quickly, executives were more transparent, consistent, and detailed in communications with employees than many had been in the past,” says Angelina Darrisaw, founder and CEO of the C-Suite Coach, an executive coaching firm. Employers need to stick with those open communication practices as employees return to the office. The return will be another period of fast change, so “communication practices established to help navigate crisis should remain to develop better employee relations,” she says.
As more people work remotely, transparency and honesty will be even more important to lead. “The pandemic has shown that many roles don’t require office presence, and some employees prefer their flexibility as long as healthy time boundaries are maintained. If employers want to stay competitive and continue to attract high-quality talent, honoring employee well-being will continue to be necessary,” she says. Employers who ignore those needs risk losing their talent.
4. Trusting our problem-solving skills
No matter what line of work you were in, you have likely had to figure out some problem or issue over the course of the past year, says inclusive leadership expert Ash Beckham, author of Step Up: How to Live With Courage and Become an Everyday Leader. How will your team collaborate from home? How will you change your business model to remain viable? How will you lead a team of people who are working from their bedrooms?
“We don’t often put ourselves in situations where we’re solving problems on the fly,” she says. But we had no choice during the pandemic. Beckham says we need to reflect on those accomplishments and let them fuel positive momentum going forward. Don’t lose sight of your ability to solve things and make the workplace better, she says. “I would hope that people would step up and really build the role that maybe they accidentally found themselves in,” she says. “To me, what that looks like is really diving into being a better person.” Don’t lose sight of what you can do, she says.
5. Embracing technology
Technology adoption accelerated during the pandemic to facilitate remote work, social distancing, and safety requirements. Collaboration platforms launched new bells and whistles. Remote work became more seamless. And that openness to digital change—and the opportunities it unleashes—is something we should take forward into our next normal, says Kevin Cornish, CEO of innovation agency Moth & Flame. “One trend is the merging of digital and virtual worlds,” he says. “How do we make that virtual environment feel more like the physical environment, that as people we prefer to be in, to foster connection?”
His teams hold regular meetings in virtual-reality settings to allow remote workers to feel like they’re in a physical space together. The technology is also useful for training and collaboration. And the more we can use technology to smooth out the bumps in remote work, the easier it is to expand the geographic boundaries of hiring. That leads to bigger labor pools, more talent, and more opportunities to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, he says.
“How do you get that focused presence in a shared workplace environment? I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, and it’s interesting to see how that part of the enterprise has been engaging and excited about virtual reality. Because it kind of solves those two: It’s got the scalability of software with that engagement of being in person,” he says.
6. Prioritizing humans
The gravity of the pandemic and the risks associated with it shifted many leaders’ perspectives to be more human-centered, says Christie Smith, senior managing director, global talent & organization/human potential leader with Accenture. “I think that there has been an intimate association with humanity, and truly, life and death. We continue to struggle with that,” she adds. To continue operating, organizations needed to shift their focus to employee needs. Accenture’s September 2020 Net Better Off research report found that when organizations meet six fundamental human needs–emotional and mental, relational, physical, financial, sense of purpose, and employability—employees tend to thrive.
Through supporting their teams during the pandemic, modern CEOs got a better sense of how critical meeting these needs are. “Mentally, these leaders now own the human agenda, not only within their organizations but within their customer group in the communities in which they live and work. And I think that that’s been a dramatic, positive shift,” she says.