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Monday, September 7, 2020

Sept 2020: Happy Other New Year?

Blogger and author Gretchen Rubin says, “September is the other January — a clean slate, a fresh start, a chance to use new pencils, fresh notebooks, and begin again.” Additionally, September is the month of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. This year it begins on September 18. If there was ever a time for a do-over, a fresh start, it would be NOW, amiright? 

All that to say, PHEW, this year has been a humdinger and we're only 3/4 of the way there. To prepare for the "new year" (and to get a little R&R), I just returned from a lovely week in Yosemite. Fortunately, the national parks are doling out passes very gingerly, so the park was incredibly UNcrowded and there was good mask-wearing in all group areas.

I took this photo on a walk one evening after dinner as a reminder of what's ahead... a long journey that feels a bit lonely at times. But still has beauty all around if we look for it.

While I certainly spent much of the time resting, being outdoors and reading things for fun, I also used the week to step back and reflect on what has happened since the pandemic. I would say that the majority of my work currently centers around assisting leaders and employees in managing the stresses, strains, and unknowns as we continue to work remotely, for the most part. And for better or worse, I have worked with a broad spectrum of contexts: higher ed, retail, non-profit, technology, churches, and start-ups. So while I can't sound all fancy and tell you I've been doing some really high-level research on this topic, I can give you my ground-level impressions gained from day-to-day work with many people.

So for this month's blog post, rather than give a list of valuable resources that I've used with clients in the last month, I'm going to share some of my TEN BIG AHA’s about working from home (WFH). This also makes this post a bit longer than normal ~ let me know what you think! Much of my thoughts are framed by a 7-article series from Harvard Business Review called The Big Idea for July 2020. I would give you the links, but you can only access them through subscription. 

Here goes!

The pandemic didn’t “cause” any of our problems; it just accelerated them. All of the things we are currently struggling through in terms of the workplace and the economy overall were already present before the pandemic. The shopping mall was already waning; retail brick-and-mortar were already deeply threatened by online shopping; we already had an abundance of over-priced restaurants; multiple employers were grappling with the question of whether they should allow employees to work from home or some sort of hybrid situation; our addiction to air travel was contributing greatly to climate change; higher ed is ridiculously expensive and the resulting loan debt is unmanageable  — not to mention that the current structures and degrees in higher ed are somewhat out of date in terms of the skills needed in the marketplace…. So many other things could be listed. Suffice it to say, all of our current challenges just came faster than we expected, and now we are being forced to deal with them rather than keep being in denial.

The 21st century workplace has been in deep transition and transformation for years. The pandemic has accelerated the evolution away from the office as a productivity space to something else — a learning space and a space to solve complex problems. We already saw this during the 2008 recession as coworking spaces and the gig economy took hold. Some ridiculous percentage of workers in the US are independent contractors (I can't find reliable data -- 20% to 40%?), and aren’t connected to one particular office. The pandemic will only decouple the worker from the office even further. Not to mention that the concentration of certain industries to certain cities has made the cost of living completely unamanageable (hello Silicon Valley and SF, among others!), so it was inevitable that the 21st century workplace would go under profound transformation. Companies are currently building the plane as they fly it, as the saying goes, in this regard.

This doesn’t mean offices are irrelevant. They can be crucial for a start-up, where the key players need to work together in nimble and catalytic fashion, solving problems and making strategic decisions together. This is also needed around big machine learning projects (like I even know what that means! Just trusting techy bros on this ones...) involving big data, AI, etc. 

We will not know the impact of all this on the physical workplace for 12 to 18 months. Not only is this due to the fluid nature of the pandemic and the economy, but also because companies are usually locked in leases that won’t be renewing for 12 to 18 months.  STAY TUNED.

HOWEVER, people are realizing that they miss things about their workspace that have little to do with production. They really need the office for socialization. People need to convene in person at least once a year. PS The lack of socialization is truly isolating for some; and for others, they are profoundly struggling with anxiety and stress related to non-work issues that are emerging from this year's MANY struggles. I have worked with several clients to create "safe spaces" to talk about these things.  It has proven very fruitful.

There are many things people like about working from home.
  • No more irrelevant travel
  • More focused time -- fewer pop-in interruptions, less random conversations.
  • Shorter meetings
  • More flexible time with family
  • No commute!
  • It took awhile, but many are finally in the groove of WFH
            ❼  Why is this working better now? Remote work has been seen as less valuable in the past and employers have resisted it. But now...
            • Everyone has to do it;
            • Thus we had to collectively figure out challenges.
            • Before, remote work was compared to the office, where we’d never have kids or pets in the picture! So it seemed less professional and legitimate?
            • In the past, virtual workers felt "lesser than" and left out - no longer!
                Leaders have a big job moving forward. They must be more invested in clear communication. One almost has to become the Chief Repetition Officer because collective vision, values and culture will not exist in one place or be naturally absorbed.

                Managers are bearing the brunt of the shift to remote work. Occupied by supporting employees, managing dispersed teams, nurturing connections. Increased frequency of 1:1’s. Less team collaboration time needed as a result, so meetings can be shorter. Managers also should know the habits and styles of their team; figure out best focus time, best meeting times. Also important to establish expectations in terms of turnaround for email, messaging. (This could be an entirely separate post - contact me if you have questions...)

                LAST BUT NOT LEAST... Our job moving forward will be to be committed long-term to keeping our work human. There will be a temptation to move even more work to digital platforms and keep tasks and project management front and center rather than keep working on trust-building and maintaining relational bonds. 

                All that to say, workplace stress looks really different now. Again, feel free to contact me with questions and feedback. I really have talked to so many different about their situations and would love to assist you! (Or just listen and commiserate 😅) Email me at 

                FINAL ENCOURAGEMENT.
                I've been reading some poetry at night to end the day on a calmer, more thoughtful note. Simple words from Mary Oliver:

                Instructions for living a life. 
                Pay attention. 
                Be astonished. 
                Tell about it. 

                Thanks for reading!

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