Now, after about three months into stay-at-home orders and working from home, many companies are talking about employees returning to the office. I’ve heard different plans of how this will be done, from limiting the number of people per floor, alternating in-office days, and installing high partitions in cubicles. But what of the human side? What lessons have we learned in these last three months away that we can bring back with us to the office?
We are going through a deep awakening in this country around race. For real change to happen, for true understanding and for shifts to occur, we need to have real, honest conversations. That means deep listening and recognizing when it isn’t our turn to speak. Listen, don’t react. Don’t respond. Take away with you what you hear and think about it. Then come back and continue the conversation.
The lesson: The only way to hear what someone is saying is to stop talking.
This should be applied more broadly to all of your conversations – at work and at home. How often in your conversations, in your meetings, are you just waiting for the moment you can jump in with your two cents, constructing your end of the conversation while the other person is speaking theirs? Has anyone ever said to you, “you didn’t hear what I said?” You probably denied it but really, you probably weren’t listening. Active listening creates better conversations and better relationships. What it really comes down to is that everyone wants to be heard.
Compassion & Empathy
People are going through stuff — and, they always were. There was a time when we kept our home life separate and private from most of our co-workers. For some, perhaps it was just a matter of privacy. For many I know, it was to protect themselves from judgment, from not being seen as fully committed to their jobs.
Video calls brought new visibility into the home lives of our colleagues. We can see (and hear) first-hand their kids, their pets, their homes. Challenges are apparent, in part, because we all have them. Whether it is homeschooling young kids, sharing workspaces with our spouses, issues with aging parents, or limited space, everyone is dealing with something.
The lesson: Be understanding about the things people go through. Just because you don’t see challenges, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
I used to say you don’t know what is going on behind people’s doors. Now, you do — at least, a little. Some problems may be more acute during the COVID shut-down but childcare challenges, aging parent issues, home emergencies, they were always there. Talk to your colleagues. Get to know something about them beyond what they are watching on TV, and have compassion for whatever they might be going through, whenever they go through it. Don’t assume a bad mood or a short fuse is about you. It rarely is.
If I have found a silver lining in the stay-at-home order, it is reconnecting with people. “Normal” life was busy – commuting, shuttling kids here and there, networking events, meetings. But busy has been redefined in the COVID-world, where the quantity of work sometimes feels greater, but the lack of commuting and activities to get to, makes the pace of life feel slower.
Going out now means taking walks around the neighborhood where we converse with our fellow strolling neighbors. Community is created through the exchange of sparse resources, such as flour and toilet paper, and a deeper connection is forged with family and distant friends by regularly checking in just to make sure everyone is okay.
Like many, being cut-off made me realize how important connection is. When one of my business school classmates was hospitalized with Covid-19 in England, our class What’s App chat became a global Zoom mini-reunion. We all seem to recognize the importance of these relationships formed over 20 years ago. We became aware of what we all have in common, of life’s fragility and that going it alone is harder than doing it together.
The lesson: Make the effort to build and nurture your relationships. They are invaluable and can see us through the toughest times.
When we get back to the office, we need to think differently about our relationships with co-workers. How do we build and strengthen those connections, nurture relationships, and show people our appreciation? When work challenges arise, wouldn’t it be great to know that you don’t have to go it alone? Build relationships with your colleagues, lend them valuable resources, take the time to form connections, and be confident knowing that there are people who have your back.
There can’t be enough said about the appreciation I feel for the people who risk their lives every day to help the rest of us who are at-home: the doctors, nurses and other medical staff; the food shoppers and delivery people, the people working in warehouses to get items together for shipping, post office workers, to name a few. These people didn’t sign up for a dangerous job and now find themselves at risk every day. They are doing the same job as before — they work hard and perform a service for us — yet most of us didn’t think too much about them just a few months ago.
The lesson: Show appreciation for the people you come in contact with.
Take a look around you and see the people that contribute to your life – that make it easier, that do the jobs you don’t want to do, or don’t have time to do. At the office, this may be the person who delivers your mail, it may be the junior staff member who is too shy to speak up in a meeting, it may be the cleaner or the security guard. Acknowledge them, have a conversation with them, ask them about themselves. Listen to their answers. See them. Thank them. Let them know they matter.
Be Here Now
How many Zoom meetings did you attend where, at the end of it, you felt it was a waste of time or that you missed something? Be honest. Were you “multitasking”? The brain can only process one thing at a time, so if you felt like you missed something in a meeting while you checked your email, or looked over a document, you did. Worse, your lack of engagement translates to others. As a leader, if members of your team don’t feel listened to, they switch off. Alternatively, employees who feel listened to are 4.6 times more likely to do their best work, according to research by Salesforce.com.
The Lesson: Be present and actively listen to the conversations you are a part of.
Video and phone calls make it much too easy to disengage. When you are back in the office, think about how to make the most of your real facetime with others. Leave your phone screen down on the table (or leave it altogether) and be present in the meeting. Come to each meeting with intention: determine what you want to bring to the meeting, and what you want to get out of it. If everyone did that, if everyone was present, it might lead to shorter, more productive meetings and fewer of them overall. Even if you continue with remote meetings, you can change your approach. Limit distractions, be intentional, and keep it brief.
The other day, I saw a photo of a dramatic mural painted on either side of a Downtown LA doorway. On the left side there was an image of a limp dead-looking hand and the words, “After the plague,” and on the right, read, “came the Renaissance” showing a representation of Michelangelo’s Hand of God, from the Sistine Chapel.
That is my hope, that positive changes are afoot, that living through this pandemic has taught us to reflect and to change the behaviors that were not serving us. Instead of going back, we have the opportunity to move forward. Whether we work from home or an office, let’s bring humanity into the workplace. Let’s value what we have right now and appreciate the people that surround us. They have our backs; let’s have theirs.