Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
I don’t know about you, but, in these times, that quote gives me all the feels. The fears, pain, ugliness, and uncertainty many of us have experienced is mind boggling. However, to paraphrase Gandalf (or, if you are going to be a stickler, J.R.R. Tolkien), we do not choose the time we live through but how we engage with it.
With that in mind, I want to take a moment to explore some of the positive changes that have come from this time. Yes, some good things have also occurred during 2020, and a recent conversation with Amy Freshman helped remind me of that. Amy is the Senior Director of Human Resources at ADP, leading their Flexible Work Arrangements program. And I was so inspired when I heard her insights into how businesses have worked hard during this challenging time to make the best choices possible, even in all the crazy:
In our previous “the customer is always right” mentality, employees were just a means to an end. They existed not to be seen, heard, or engaged with, but to make the client happy. The talent famine brought new attention to the employee experience. However, Freshman noted that COVID-19 really accelerated that conversation. It was like we went from slowly climbing the hill of a rollercoaster, then suddenly crested the top and surged forward. Within about a week’s time, employees were told to stay home and be safe. It wasn’t long before conversations about physical and mental health became normalized and necessary. Over the course of the next few months, employers invested in resources to help their staff manage stress and offered EAPs. While it is not a new finding that more engaged and supported employees provide better service to customers, these last few months have amplified and accelerated this fact. Ignoring the middleman was doing extensive harm, but with communication lines opened like never before as management came alongside employees, they worked together, supported each other, showed real care for colleagues and team members to band together and make progress in this trying time and difficult environment.
And yes, there was this new way of working. It was an overnight “Welcome to the world of remote work”… well…sort of. For many in the industry like Freshman, they know remote work has been around for decades. This was different. Very different. She will be the first to share that what we have all experienced these last 6+ months is not typical remote work. Even as a remote worker herself for over 13 years, her day-to-day is not like her normal working routine pre-pandemic. School-aged children with remote learning in the spring, and then camps and summer programs cancelled, spouse is home every day — very different home office look and feel, to say the least. She is no longer traveling for work, no freedom of location for this worker. Video calls, while the next best thing to in-person meetings, are the only way to ‘see people’ for collaboration on a project; gone are the days of having the option of traveling to her office to engage with colleagues, meet over lunch, chat with a co-worker in a hallway in the office. With that, Freshman recognizes the level of change for her pales in comparison to those who almost never worked from a home office and traveled to a building for work every day. We are all experiencing our own level of change — but the change is real for everyone.
On a positive note, it has been amazing to see employers work to effectively traverse this new terrain. Some companies have drunk every drop of that Kool-Aid and have declared they will be permanently remote. Others are riding the wave and haven’t made any long-term announcements. At the same time, we are also hearing of companies that have already started to bring back their employees to the workplace, slowly, in stages. And let’s face it, some employees are thriving in their new remote positions and are more efficient than ever before, and some not so much. The ones who love it gladly skip their commute and feel they lead a more balanced life. While on the flip side, other employees have missed office life and are struggling with their work-from-home environment, clamoring to get back to the hustle and the in-office camaraderie. These last several months have really forced organizations to test the waters on remote work — for the companies and for the employees. They learned what works well in a remote environment and what doesn’t. Although we would have never wished for the circumstances, without the shutdown, this process would have taken years, if it ever would have happened at all.
I don’t know if anything has ever tested our flexibility like COVID-19. Right away it became clear that every aspect of work life needed to be re-examined to determine if it was absolutely necessary to the structure of the business. If it wasn’t bolted down, it might have to go… and even if it was bolted down, we might be breaking out a wrench to test its tenacity. We. All. Experienced. All. Of. The. Stress. However, it quickly became the perfect catalyst to streamline and look for efficiencies all across the business. As working parents were teaching their kids from home, they were juggling a new kind of workload. The question became who was available and when. Some employers found flexibility in timelines as they realized that 9to 5 wouldn’t cut it, or, frankly, wasn’t feasible. Shifts in schedules started to appear, maybe a 4 to 10 am and finishing up 7 to 9 pm. As Freshman noted, some positions simply couldn’t budge. For example, if you work in a call center role, customers still needed to be served. So, some other piece would have to shift to make things work. Maybe it was time to invest in online chat tools for your clients and step away from monitoring a call line. Or perhaps the workforce planning team needed to look at availability for all of their employees and come up with shift coverage to ensure clients were cared for as they needed. Regardless, in this state of fluctuation, there was and continues to be room for dialogue on how, where and when work gets done like never before.
If given the choice, no one would want these circumstances, but we are seeing so many businesses rise to the challenge. So, let’s all take a moment to take a break from the negative that is surrounding all of this and look instead at the positives that have arisen from the harsh and forever-changing circumstances. What growth, what change, what development have you seen? What innovative ideas and pivots did your teams make? What new efficiencies and automation have you built? If you truly stop and think about it, the answers might surprise you. I know it did for me.
Jacquelyn Adams is a career development enthusiast and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, delving into more effective employee training strategies… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.