Adjusting to disruption

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A year ago, we never could have anticipated how we would conclude 2020 — work from home, virtual meetings, and health and safety protocols.
Now while it certainly does not feel normal, we are getting the hang of this new era, accomplishing our work and even seeing some benefits to the adaptations thrust upon us. I compared notes with colleagues on key aspects of the disruption that has swept into our workplaces. Here are some key takeaways from these conversations.

  • Communication. While communication via Zoom and Teams is a godsend, the separation from co-workers is frustrating. Without intentional efforts to connect, it is easy to forfeit that organic communication that happens over coffee or through fleeting exchanges in the hallway. While schedules may be tight, teams need to breathe and allow time for informal communication and unstructured time together that replicates the discourse that happens naturally as teams navigate the day.
  • Innovation. Strong team dynamics create a healthy breeding ground for innovation through experimentation and shared learning. Office teams demonstrated dynamic innovation at the time the pandemic hit, discovering new ways to accomplish work collaboratively without being physically together. Intense focus on how experimentation happens is critical to maintaining innovation at the core of office interactions. There has never been a time when it is more important to listen and consider the creative ideas of teammates.
  • Flexibility. Team members have lots of responsibilities they are tackling at home and at work, and work-from-home schedules blend these tasks into patchwork days no longer resembling a normal workday. Flexibility is the order of the day. While the work must be accomplished, clarity on how and when it is accomplished must be a starting point for every team. Once expectations on response times are set, employees should have the leeway to accomplish their work on a schedule that fits the totality of their days and multifaceted obligations.
  • Empathy. The pandemic experience is disorienting and the resultant anxiety among workers is palpable. The most important thing we can do for our teams is to demonstrate empathy for the loss and fear people are experiencing. Organizational leadership should invest extra time in connecting one on one with team members to understand how people are feeling and to tackle small problems before they become big problems.
  • Culture. Office culture may represent the “soft” side of what it means to be part of a workplace team, yet it is critically important to productivity, creativity and a sense of belonging. Maintaining team culture remotely can be a daunting task. This problem is exacerbated when teams are hybrid, such that some people primarily working from home almost never see colleagues in person. In a virtual world, intentional focus on the essence and translation of what makes a workplace special is critically important.

The year 2020 may go down in history as annus horribilis, yet the reckoning it has wrought will no doubt leave behind societal and workplace enhancements that will live on for the betterment of all.

Deborah D. Hoover is president and CEO of The Burton D. Morgan Foundation