As the number of Covid cases in Canada climbs it seems strange to be talking about our return to a new post-Covid normal. Yet – while the end of the pandemic may not yet be in our grasp, some form of an end is in our sight. This pandemic will pass and when it does, we will be invited to consider what of our former lives we would like to pick up again, and what new patterns and ways of being we would like to normalize.
The shift from our old normal into the pandemic way of being functioned like a shock in many workplaces – people were quickly exhausted from navigating the multiple ways of working differently. Many people experienced anxiety and loss related to the pandemic. But those early days also revealed a can-do attitude, an “all-hands-on-deck” energy that rallied people and injected a positive energy into our lockdowns. It was a pandemic, yes, but together we were going to get through this. By Fall of 2020, we began to observe some cracks in the collective spirit. For many, the winter that followed felt like a long, lonely haul. And now, despite the promise of Spring, the slow roll out of vaccines and the renewed lockdown (at least, here in Ontario) means that nerves are frayed, and tension is high.
For those whose jobs have meant working from home, what does it mean to plan for the next change we will invariably go through – a return to in-person workplaces, in-person meetings, and opportunities for business travel once more? For those who work in high-pressure essential services, what will it mean to breathe more easily again? One leader shared with me that for her employees, while moving into the pandemic restrictions was hard, coming out of these restrictions will be harder. Others suggest the opposite, anticipating a gluttony of activity and a repeat of the roaring 20s.
As we imagine our post-Covid workplaces, it is important to recall that the pandemic is not the only social ill with which we have been engaged. This last year has unveiled in new ways the social inequities and racism that plagues our communities and our workplaces. And, while we have been focused on finding a cure for the Covid-19 virus, the harsh realities of climate change have not gone away.
My proposal is that the current moment – this time before an anticipated reopening – is an excellent time to review our core organizational values and commitments. (Though I know that workplaces that are essential and high pressure may not have the time right now to pause and reflect. For these places, the reflection time will likely come later, when the pressure of the current moment begins to ebb.) We are, once again, in an enforced down-time. This may be the last such down-time before the vaccines take hold. If this is so, then now is the time for reflection – to grasp this moment with an eye to our return. This, it seems to me, is a good time to ask questions such as, “What type of workplace do we want to be?” “What will we do differently in order to reflect values of equity, diversity and inclusion?” “What will how we reopen reveal to us, and those watching us, about our values?” “How will our workspaces be different upon our return?” “How will we remember our environmental footprint while we engage in our work?” The questions for our consideration are both big picture and specific.
The advantage of the lockdowns we have experienced – if we can talk about advantages – is that they have offered many of our workplaces the opportunity to press the reset button. Opportunities to genuinely reset do not come by often. In non-pandemic time, many workplaces intentionally choose reset opportunities by engaging in regular visioning and strategic planning conversations. While these conversations are valuable, the temptation is always to return to the old normal. We may dream about doing new things, but it can be hard to wedge these dreams into the small spaces between what we already do. Now, the pandemic has forced us to let so much go. Before we bring everything and everyone rushing back, can we stop and reflect, ensuring we actually want to bring back that which we are bringing back? The pandemic has also forced us to look hard at ourselves, at our privilege and our ways of excluding those who differ from us. Rather than returning to our old normal, can we use this time to think about what it means to be equitable, diverse and inclusive?
As many have stated: “Never waste a good crisis.” In this case, this quote may mean seizing the current moment to reflect together on who we want to be as we plan for opening our doors once more.