Back in the almost-good-old days, in the fall of 2021, we were hopeful that the pandemic was starting to ease off. Friends began seeing each other again, grocery stores no longer counted how many people were entering the building, school was in-person, and work was beginning to return to a type of normal. In Summer 2021, friends began filling my inbox with a link to the Extra gum commercial, a lovely take on the end of the pandemic (gum included).
As I write this, it is January 2022, the government has encouraged us to limit our social contacts once more, school is online again (though by the time this newsletter goes out, it will be in person again) and those who can are told to work from home. In truth, it feels like March 2020 and January 2021 all over again. It is a déjà vu perhaps, though this time around, our pandemic muscles are both well-practiced and perhaps, wearier. Still, I am strangely hopeful. While I won’t make any predictions, I am beginning to imagine the end of the pandemic. And with this, I am beginning to wonder how we can prepare for a post-pandemic workplace. What will it mean to return to a new semblance of normal? I offer four themes for consideration.
1. The Extra gum commercial assumes people will be thrilled to be free of their Covid-imposed lockdowns and that relationships will bounce back with fervor and joy. This may be true. Indeed, I noticed Iast Fall, when friends and family began seeing each other again, that people lingered longer. No one wanted the magic of in-the-flesh-togetherness to end. Nonetheless, our return to work will be different from the Extra gum commercial. We will not all emerge into togetherness at the same rate. Some have suffered significantly during the pandemic. Some will be comfortable with in-person gatherings much sooner than others. Some will require time to reacquaint themselves with the social interactions associated with in-person work. Some will feel weary and tense for some time. Now is a good time to imagine creating kind-hearted workplace cultures, working environments that get the job done while making space for a diversity of human experience. Recently, several organizations have shared with us stories of pain related to the challenges, even toxicity, in their workplaces. While it is always a good thing to transform challenging organizational cultures, the end of-pandemic reality will put pressure on even the most robust workplaces. Now is a good time to reorient workplace cultures around core organizational values. Practically, this may mean establishing core values or reminding one another of the organization’s existing values. It means establishing a vision for the organizational culture. And perhaps most importantly, it means leading in a manner that reflects these values and this vision.
2. The pandemic invited us to question our norms related to work-life balance. Why do we work so much? Why do we struggle with work-life balance? It is as though a meter of happiness was reawakened and the world discovered that work alone cannot bring joy. In part, this is why some industries experienced the “great resignation” – the mass departure of employees from their jobs, looking for greener pastures elsewhere. People asked themselves the question: Must I be loyal to my employer if my employer is not loyal to me? These questions function as a wake-up call to employers. Meaning and belonging matter – including at work. For those in leadership positions, preparing for a post-pandemic workforce must include imagining ways to invest in employees, to create cultures of mutuality where diverse voices are valued and included in organizational direction and decisionmaking. It also includes putting health and wellbeing at the forefront of our organizational thinking and planning.
3. The open space created by the pandemic brought the reality of racism into our consciousness like never before. Since George Floyd’s murder in the United States in May 2020, and the 2021 discovery of the graves of Indigenous children around residential schools here in Canada (which is ongoing), many workplaces have renewed their focus on establishing equitable, diverse, and inclusive (EDI) organizational cultures. Throughout history, societal movements toward justice are often followed by either an intentional push-back against justice or a loss of interest in equity initiatives: we return to old patterns because the work of EDI is either too hard or something else has taken over our attention. Living into a post-pandemic normal means it is likely that our attentions will be pulled away from our EDI initiatives. Our EDI commitments can take a back seat as other business takes our attention. It does not need to be this way. If we regard EDI as central to workplace health – as central as an annual budget – we can give EDI the time it needs and deserves. We can maintain our commitments to EDI even as we attend to other business.
4. Now is also a good time to reimagine the business itself. The pandemic has upended how we do business. While the transition to Zoom meetings (or other video platforms) is perhaps the most obvious change that companies experienced, there are many others: working from home, new ways of doing business, creative responses to challenges, new collaborations with partner organizations, new policies, and procedures, permission to be innovative, etc. More than one organization has told us that the pandemic allowed them to make decisions in mere weeks or days when before the pandemic these same decisions languished at executive tables for months or even years. Most organizations struggle with making deep and meaningful change. It seems like a shame to lose the opportunity this fruit-basket-upset has created. As we prepare for a post-pandemic world, taking a step back to reflect on how our business processes have changed – and how we managed to roll with these changes – can allow us to bring forward that which has been good, allowing us to indeed, build back better.
The pandemic has been hard and wearying. Coming out of the pandemic will also be challenging. We can, however, be prepared. Even more, we can use this experience to propel ourselves and our workplaces forward, becoming truly joyful and equitable places of meaning, purpose, and belonging.