A client of mine, recently told me a story illustrating something I’ve been routinely hearing during conversations with business leaders.
After a year of working from home, the firm’s employees recently began alternating weeks at home and in the office. My client decided to throw an outdoor luncheon, to bring people together again.
“It was awkward as hell,” she reported. “Mask, or no mask? Do we hug? How close should I get to people? And what in the world are we going to talk about?”
Prior to COVID-19, workplace gatherings prompted none of these questions. The office wasn’t awkward, at least for most of us. Instead it was just … normal.
More than a year ago COVID forced us to burrow into our homes. For many, that meant radically novel work environments: Zoom meetings, kitchen table desks, commutes counted in steps rather than miles.
As we emerge from our dens and tip-toe our way back into the office, we will encounter workplaces in the midst of radical evolution. Among many other things, my client’s observation reveals that our muscle memory for simple workplace socialization and collaboration has grown weak, with so many months of toiling remotely and alone.
During my more than two decades of executive consulting, I never before have encountered so much dramatic volatility and transformation. Through it all, leadership has been essential.
I spent the year engaged in conversations with leaders about the unique challenges confronting them. They tell me they are working longer hours than ever and experiencing more anxiety throughout the day. They are exhausted, and not devoting enough time to taking care of themselves. The leaders I speak with miss the impromptu meetings and spontaneous conversations that forged friendships, sparked camaraderie and often led to especially fruitful innovations and efforts.
I asked one leader, in the natural foods industry, what was the biggest difference in his workplace between now and last year. He said people are not as close. Camaraderie has leaked away.
“Nobody was hanging out after work for a full year,” he told me. “That has an impact. People are in their own little cocoons now, even when they are in food production and work side-by-side.”
COVID challenged one of the foundational tasks of leaders — building strong teams. It will continue to confound as the pandemic drifts further into the rear-view mirror.
As I listened closely and counseled leaders about ways to lead out of the pandemic, themes emerged. Businesses can offer radically different work environments; law firms, natural foods brands and hospitals share little in terms of what it means to be “at the office.” But the bedrock of great organizational leadership remains steady, regardless of the nature of the work.
Instead of changing how leaders go about succeeding at their jobs, COVID spotlighted the things that always are vital, but sometimes get forgotten or ignored. Leading through the pandemic did not compel thoughtful leaders to try new things. Rather, it reinforced commitments to foundational practices.
One of the most important of these practices — connecting — will be the subject of the first installment in this leadership series.