Two years ago, at this exact time many of us across the US, and around the globe, were in full lockdown mode. Separated from family and friends, we learned what it meant to pod with just our immediate families. We worked and home schooled simultaneously – every square surface being converted in a school desk or workstation. We learned new terms like “mask mandates” and “social distancing.” Colleagues who once greeted us with a smile, now waved to us over Zoom and nearly every interaction started with a check in – how is everyone feeling? Anyone sick in your world? How are you doing? It’s not a stretch to say that no one wants to go back to such unusual and unknown circumstances.
In the intervening years, life has moved along. We’ve done more than mastered Zoom calls – we’ve reshaped our worlds. In two years since we’ve been home and largely virtual, loved ones have been lost, babies have been born, and furry friends adopted. Colleagues have moved homes or moved across-the-globe. Team members have quit their jobs, joined new companies or ventured out on-their-own. The pandemic may have contained us, but it didn’t stop us. It didn’t stop us from living – didn’t stop us from changing. And just when we got into new patterns, new comfort levels, we need to change again. Now that we’ve figured out our lives in a virtual environment, many of us are being asked to upset that careful balance so we can be together again physically.
It’s something we’ve talked about for months, but now it’s real. As organizations grapple with their “return to office” approach, the hybrid anxiety is palpable. Vaccine requirements or not? Masks on or off? Two days? Three days? Dedicated workspace? Hoteling? Same days? Any days? Strict guidelines? Loosely enforced? The list is endless and exhausting and there is no Pandemic Leadership 101 bestseller on Amazon to guide us.
And while we can’t know the future (new variants anyone?) – we can ask ourselves, “What is it we have learned that will serve us going forward? How can we allay our hybrid anxiety and support those around us?”
Remote-Global-Pandemic Lessons to Carry into our Hybrid World
- Anything can change, and it probably will. The hybrid policies of today will need to be altered. Return-to-office may morph, once again, into retreat-from-office. These changes are not a mark of failure – but a mark of movement, of progress.
- We need each other – We are all interconnected and recognizing our shared humanity means awareness for the fact that we all have challenges, struggles, concerns. One person’s “saved commute time” is another person’s “lack of connection with others.” If we respect our individual differences and unique needs, while recognizing we all have needs, we can help each other through this next adjustment period.
- One way or the other, work still needs to get done. We might all have different ways of defining our ideal work conditions, but we find common ground in the organizational goals that need to be achieved, the customers that want to be served, and the purpose we have for the work we do. While we’ve proven we can get-it-done under rapidly changing virtual environments, for some, productivity came at a cost. They key moving forward will be to help those who crave human connection and in person collaboration to co-exist with team members who want a virtual work arrangement. Whatever the configuration, continued focus on accomplishing collective goals must remain.
- Your leaders are navigating this “new normal” right alongside you – talk to them. Leaders aren’t asking you to return to the office on a whim. The truth is they are probably as anxious as you are about how they are going to adjust. Many are conducting surveys and hearing in the responses anxiety and uncertainty. They cannot create a hybrid policy that covers everyone and is also uniquely tailored to individual needs. But what they can do is talk to you – honestly and transparently – about what you both need, what the organization expects of you, and how you can do your best work while meeting your personal needs.
- Patience, grace, and a little humor goes a long way. In April of 2020, I asked leaders if there was one thing, they wanted to take from what was an uncertain and dark moment and bottle it for the future, what would it be? The word I heard over-and-over again was “empathy.” Just as we did two years ago, now is the time to continue to tap deep into the well of empathy – for our teammates, for our leaders, for each other. That, and the humor of a well-timed gif, texted to your teammates, goes a long way.
For so long many of us, including me, talked about hybrid work – but it was still a slightly-distant-idea. Now it’s real. Our work environment changed radically – and it’s about to change again. The anxiety is real and understandable. But better than embracing a “return to normal” is to recognize that “normal” has been redefined. Just as our work environment was radically changed two years ago, it will likely change again. Asynchronous work teams, 32-hour workweeks, 3-day weekends – these discussions are happening. Opportunities to question our job conditions exist side-by-side with those feelings of anxiety. It’s in embracing what we’ve learned this past two years that we can turn that anxiety into reinvention and continue to reshape how work gets done.