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Three Ways The Pandemic Changed Us And What It Means For The Workplace

Wow! Finally, our pandemic-driven isolation is retreating. Last week, the CDC announced masking is no longer necessary for the vaccinated. So gradually we can return to normal. But wait – most likely, you are questioning what normal means now. Will you indeed revert to the way you lived and worked in 2019 and early 2020? Odds are you are wary of reestablishing your life to your exact pre-pandemic normal. And this reluctance includes how you envision your career or work in the short term and longer-term future. The key for leaders guiding their organizations out of the pandemic is to recognize how recent experiences transformed people. Then, to ensure a successful work future, they should consider these changes when rebuilding and improving the company culture.

Trauma Led to Profound Personal Transformations Each person’s pandemic experience is unique. Yet, most of us acknowledge a few common aftereffects.

The Myth of Our Invincibility Disappeared Last March, the pandemic put everyone at risk shaking even the heartiest individuals. The unprecedented circumstances brought to light the limits of personal control. We now understand how our fates depend on natural forces and the acts of others. When invincibility weakens, the importance of trust intensifies. These days, most everyone desires transparent, ethical, and reliable organizations and leaders. Our expectations for transparency are likely to be unbending from now on.

Purpose and Values Moved to the Foreground Nothing raises questions concerning life’s purpose like facing mortality. Life-threatening challenges such as the virus strengthen the need to clarify and honor our personal values. As people emerge from the pandemic, they may resemble heart-attack survivors who pledge to live better. These transformations will affect how we view our work and careers and what we will tolerate in the workplace. The good news for leaders is the renewed quest for purpose can strengthen company cultures. When companies boldly commit to a societal purpose and help their employees connect with it, individual and organizational well-being thrive.

Priorities Shifted Essential workers faced risks daily as they toiled on the front lines to make sure that the rest of us had food, critical health care services, and public transportation. Never again will they take for granted safe working conditions. Instead, the importance of a secure workplace probably moved up on their list of priorities. For those lucky enough to work from home, the blurring of personal and work boundaries created less tolerance for extreme job-related sacrifices. More than a few, primarily women, rejected what they considered high costs of juggling work with other priorities and left the workforce. On the other hand, some found new ways to balance careers with other parts of their lives. The difference stemmed from how companies structured work. Organizations promoting flexibility and empowering employees to find their work rhythms were the most productive and resilient throughout the pandemic. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, companies with superior processes for managing time, talent, and energy before the crisis were much more productive during the pandemic than the rest. Neither employees nor employers thrive when work conditions lead to burnout. However, companies providing employees with the means for integrating their work responsibilities with other priorities will come out of the pandemic stronger.

How Organizations Can Build on the Changes One corporate CEO exclaimed recently, “I feel like my company culture is changing without my permission.” Indeed. Companies depend on people. Therefore, as people change, company leaders must choose between fighting the shifts or embracing and thus benefitting from them. Most of us function within a firm framework of how to ensure organizational success. However, our habits for leading our companies rest on frequently hidden assumptions of how the world works. These theories are hard to access consciously and harder to give up. Yet, no matter how tempting the tendency to ignore the need for change, leaders must come to terms with the trauma everyone has suffered in one way or another over the past year. The experiences were profound, and the changes that resulted are unlikely to go away any time soon, if ever. The good news is trauma can lead to growth, both individual and organizational. Recently, Stanford psychologist, Jamil Zaki, offered evidence that “terrible moments can have positive effects.” Just as many individuals learned and became more robust through the shocks of the pandemic, companies can reframe how they function. They can become more resilient as a result. The key is to recognize employees’ personal changes and rework organizations to embrace and benefit from them.

Build Trust Through Real Transparency As we understand in new ways how our fates are intertwined, we will look for, if not demand, work cultures built on trust. Talk of transparency seems like a cliché these days. Yet, many companies committing to transparency still hide too much information from their employees. Through the pandemic, employees have recognized, acknowledged, and dealt with their vulnerabilities and expect their organizations and leaders to do the same.

Connect Employees’ Work to a Clear Company Purpose As people seek a more significant meaning in their lives, many will expect to find it partially through their work. What better time than now to ensure all in the organization understand their contribution to the greater good of society.

Enable a Culture Respecting Personal Priorities By engaging employees in the process of rebuilding the culture, companies can ensure they adequately consider both personal and business priorities. The two are not incompatible. Creative solutions that serve both well come from collective brain power. Now that the virus-forced crisis is subsiding, leaders must cope with organizations unlikely to ever return to the past “normal.” Consider this: the pandemic erupted across the landscape like a volcano. And volcanoes, while often catastrophic, also enrich the earth and build worlds. So too, the difficult times we have endured over the past months provide leaders with opportunities to enrich their companies and rebuild better by honoring personal changes. We can create organizations as resilient as the people who comprise them.

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