What Have We Learned So Far?

Posted 11.02.2021

Here’s something that might make your head spin. Next week will mark 20 months since the day we all learned that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were quarantined with COVID in Australia and the NBA shut down its season on a dime when a player was diagnosed with COVID during pre-game warmups and the arena was cleared of fans. In the United States, March 11, 2020 was the day the pandemic got real.

Five or six weeks later, I was on Zoom (remember when that was fresh, new and kind of fun?) with a group of senior leaders in a client company and asked this question for consideration – “What if we’re still working this way six months from now?” The question itself was so painful that they practically threw up on me. We definitely weren’t going there.

And yet, we ended up going there. Twenty months later, we still haven’t returned to where we were in the BC (before COVID) era. And, this just in, we’re never going back there. There’s no way you run the most disruptive social experiment ever for 20 months and expect things to go back to the way they were before. So, this feels like a good time to ask, what have we learned so far and what do those lessons mean to the future of work? And, what are the implications for the leaders leading the people who do the work?

Here are a few of my conclusions. I’d love to hear yours.

Appearances Don’t Matter as Much as We Thought – Before COVID would you ever have imagined doing business deals or management presentations from your kitchen or an extra bedroom? Better yet, would you have dreamed of having that important conversation while dressed in a decent looking sweater or shirt on top and sweatpants on the bottom? Think of all the time and money you used to spend on looking your best for work. It mattered until it didn’t. The past 20 months have demonstrated that appearances don’t matter as much as we thought they did and that substance is more important than style.

We’re More Productive When We’re Not Travelling or Commuting All the Time – Many of us – myself included – have been amazed at how much we can get done in a day when we’re not spending 2 or 3 days a week travelling for business or 2 or 3 hours a day commuting back and forth to the office. This lesson, of course, has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s great to have the time and brain space back. It’s not great when the productivity is coming from back-to-back to back meetings online from dawn to dusk. Going forward, we’re going to have to find the sweet spot on how much productivity is sustainable and realistic. As a client pointed out to me last week, the next wave of this issue will likely come as we return to some level of business travel and commuting and managers will expect productivity to stay at the same levels they’ve been at while their people have not had to leave home to do their work. Since that won’t be possible, the terms will have to be renegotiated.

We Actually Like Our Family Members – There may or not be data out there to support me on this, but based on the conversations I’ve had with scores of clients over the past 20 months, I’m convinced that one of the reasons there’s so much pushback on going back to the office full time is that many people realize their lives are fuller and richer when they have more time with their loved ones. A good portion of the time that they haven’t been spending in planes, trains and automobiles has been going to their life partners, kids and friends. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard stories about moms and dads taking breaks during the day to have lunch with their kids or spend some time playing in the back yard. For sure, it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses. Home schooling and child care have been huge challenges for many, but, on the whole, most of the people I talk with have realized that life is better and more meaningful when they have more time with their families and friends.

We Still Need Connection with the People We Work With – And, that said, just about everyone I talk to has greatly missed in-person time with their colleagues. I spent some one-on-one time last week with a group of leaders in our Next Level Leadership® group coaching program who were calling in from the road for the first time in a year and a half. They were out visiting their teams and were absolutely thrilled to be doing so. We’ve been able to get a lot done on Zoom, Teams and WebEx the past couple of years, but there is no substitute for the connection that comes from being in the room with people. That doesn’t mean, though, that we need to go back to spending 100 percent of our time in in-person meetings. Leaders will need to be thoughtful and strategic in establishing operating rhythms that leverage the sweet spot of the right balance between working together remotely and working together in person. As I’ve written here before, I think keeping the distinction in mind between content-driven work and the work of connection can help a lot in finding that sweet spot.

Flexibility Was an Underrated Leadership Behavior – Finally, if there’s one thing we’ve all learned since March 2020 it’s that there’s a lot we don’t control. To be successful, we have to stay flexible and adapt to the situation on the ground. That’s going to continue to be especially true for leaders going forward. Remember during the first few months of the pandemic how much we talked about reaching the “new normal”? Is it possible that we’ve reached it and that the new normal is constant adaptation to changing conditions? Personally, I think that it is. Looking back, it turns out that flexibility was an underrated leadership behavior. Going forward, I think it’s going to be at the top of the list of the most successful leaders.

Those are some of my lessons learned so far from the pandemic era. What are some of yours? If you’re reading this through LinkedIn, please share your thoughts in a comment. If you’re reading this directly on the Eblin Group blog, please send me an email.

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