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. New technologies, protocols (like keeping our distance), and ways of doing business proliferated.
As vaccination rates rise, offices are increasingly welcoming back employees, and life is beginning to look a bit like it did in “before times”—but different, too. Employees are also different. During the pandemic, many shared aspects of their personal lives, challenges, and vulnerabilities with managers and co-workers, which shifted the nature of many work relationships.
Now, it’s time to think about the changes ahead and how to be successful as a changed person in a changing workplace. Here are some of the things you can do to help you be more successful in the “next normal.”
Check in with yourself
Before you charge ahead to the next phase of work as if nothing has changed, some introspection is a good idea. Take a moment to think about what you want—and why, says career coach and therapist Brieanna Scolaro. The pandemic has made some people rethink their priorities. You may be dealing with personal or mental health challenges triggered by isolation or loss. Or you may be facing professional constraints like a reduced team size or budget. Those can be real challenges that may affect what you can reasonably accomplish now, she says.
“What we do need to do now is reevaluate what our goals are, and how they fit in a pandemic world. So, if you have been really trying to go for promotion, or you are about to launch a huge project, what are your goals within that? And what are your timelines around that? Maybe you need to adjust the goal that you had or the expectation of your work performance,” she says. Also, look at the “why” behind the goal. What do you hope to get out of achieving it? Exploring the real needs behind the drive can often give you insight about what you really want, she says.
Strengthen your networks
We all need a little help from time to time. Whether it’s the person who can give us just the right pep talk, or someone who can walk the dog or pick up the kids when we work late, it’s a good idea to think about where you’re going to need support as the world opens up again—and how to connect with people who can help when you need it.
That might be a problem. Yale University researchers found that our social networks shrunk by an average of 16%. As more companies are making plans to open up offices and welcome employees back—at least part-time—many daily routines, stressors, and other aspects of our lives are going to change significantly. Again.
You probably don’t need a pile of research to know that having a strong support network is beneficial in a number of ways, and is even more important now. Nevertheless, that pile exists. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that not having family and friends who can help out during times of trouble is linked with social isolation, loneliness, and even physical and mental conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. A strong professional network can contribute to career success. And a strong social support network can help us be more resilient when dealing with stress.
It’s not uncommon to have more support in one area than another, says communication expert Rachel DeAlto, author of Relatable: How to Connect with Anyone Anywhere (Even If It Scares You). So, look for the gaps you may have, especially as you think about what you’ll need if your work schedule is changing. DeAlto calls them “foot on chest” moments, where you suddenly have a crisis, something you need to talk about, or need help in other ways. Who will you call?
Gather your personal “board”
Once you’re clear about what you want, building your skills and positioning yourself for advancement might be something you have to do yourself, says Keri Ohlrich, CEO of HR consulting firm Abbracci Group and coauthor of The Way of the HR Warrior: Leading the Charge to Transform Your Career and Organization. She recommends assembling your personal “board of directors.” These are trusted mentors, colleagues, and advisers who can give you the advice and feedback you need and who may also be plugged in to any power dynamic shifts in your workplace.
It may be a good idea to talk to your manager, too, says Bruce Tulgan, founder and CEO of leadership consultancy RainmakerThinking and author of The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done. If the two of you have a good relationship, reach out and discuss development opportunities and resources. Your boss may need help with a stretch project or have ideas about how you can learn something new. This also gives you the opportunity to reinforce how you add value.
Protect 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.)
Balance transparency and professionalism
Remember when you were in the middle of an important videoconference and your cat hopped up on the back of your chair or there was utter household chaos in the background? The early pandemic days were a free-for-all for some of us. The “norms” around what was considered appropriate during the workday changed out of necessity, 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.
In addition, the structured nature of videoconferencing has made it difficult to cultivate those close relationships that happen in the office, but Robin hopes that we’ll get better at it in hybrid workplaces. “Disclosure begets disclosure,” she says.
But constant chaos may be perceived as a little less cute than it was in 2020. If you still haven’t figured out Zoom or calls are constantly being interrupted by issues at home, you may encounter some compassion fatigue from coworkers and managers. Those feelings may be a barrier to team members working together most effectively.
The resilience so many have shown during the pandemic is something that shouldn’t be forgotten, Robin 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.
Ask for help when you need it
When asking for help, be as specific as possible about what you need, says leadership expert Julie Bee, founder of Lead from Anywhere. Prioritize the help you need and be fair about your requests. If you keep going back to the same person over and over again without offering support in return, the relationship may become unbalanced. And don’t just think about the people who can help you with your immediate need. Sometimes, asking a mentor or coach for advice about how to manage a challenging situation and solve it can lead to more ideas and resources than constantly asking a friend or family member to listen to your problem or help you solve a crisis, she says.
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, DeAlto says. Remember that what you need is not always obvious to those around you. “Sometimes people around us don’t give support because they don’t really understand what we need. Or they’re afraid to step up, or they don’t want to overstep,” she says. Keeping the people around you apprised of what you need—and staying attuned to their needs, too—can help strengthen your relationships and make it more likely that you’ll get the support you need when you need it.
Trust your problem-solving skills
No matter what line of work you were in, you 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. You helped your team learn how to collaborate from home. You may have helped figure out how to change your company’s business model to remain viable. You may have even led a team of people who are working from their bedrooms.
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 situation 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. Don’t lose sight of what you can do.
Brace for (more) new 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. 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,” he says.
Eighty-five percent of companies recently surveyed by McKinsey said they had accelerated digitization. Employees are going to have to be comfortable with digital technologies, says Julia Lamm, workforce strategy partner at PwC. In addition, more companies are going to be using technology to measure productivity.
Analytics was the number one area of digital investment for HR executives in a recent PwC survey. HR leaders and managers will be using tools to measure productivity. “How do you better make use of digital tools that are looking at deployment or looking at metrics?” Lamm asks. But it’s also important to remember that user experience is often a priority in such tools. As they become more ubiquitous, they will also likely be more seamless and easily integrated into software and devices.
Keep working on the skills that matter
Gartner data found that the number of skills required for a single job was increasing by 10% per year. The research company also found that role-based skills planning wasn’t helping organizations develop the right employee skill sets. Grouping unrelated skills doesn’t build the skills that will create competitive advantage. But there are some skills that never become obsolete, including:
- Effective communication
- Persuasion and the ability to motivate others
These are all skills that will serve you well in the new workplace.
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.
“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. Just as pandemic-era CEOs got a better sense of how critical meeting these needs are, Smith says we should all remain focused on the fact that we work with human beings who have needs. When those needs are met, both the employees and the organization tend to do better. 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.
Expect the unexpected
As many workplaces evolve to hybrid models or have other significant changes in how they operate, adaptability is an increasingly necessary skill, Lamm says. The ability to keep functioning, even when you’re a little uncomfortable, is important during times of uncertainty. Taking on stretch roles or taking on new challenges can help “build the adaptability muscles,” she says. One thing is certain: there will be more change ahead.
The pandemic has left some lasting changes on the workplace. Finding the best of them and bringing them into the new workplace could be an unexpected benefit for virtually everyone.