lessons learned

Can lessons learned in 2020 improve our workplaces?

There were a lot of lessons learned in 2020.

Some people discovered something new about themselves.

Some found an inner strength and drew on their resilience.

Others acknowledged the fragility of health – both physical and mental.

Many of us have been shaken by uncertainty – our societal bonds, our economy, our income, our healthcare systems.

Some of us re-kindled old friendships at a distance and found new perspectives on relationships.

Many of us learned a new technology and “you’re on mute” became perhaps the most common phrase of 2020.

We picked up new hobbies and games, sometimes rediscovering our youthful joys.

And, of course, some folks learned they like working from home while others learned they don’t.

Whatever your journey and experience, whatever you have learned or unlearned in the crazy year of 2020, there are a few things we can think about as leaders as we prepare to tackle 2021.

A broader view of leadership in the New Year

We need a new leadership agenda that empowers teams, including teams with members who may not see each other, to continue to build trust, challenge each other and double down on their commitments to one another, as well as a leadership agenda that supports individuals’ well-being, nurtures optimism and that builds resilient workers within resilient organizations.

So, what does that mean?

Work and home balance or work-life synergy has always been a challenge but it was brought into crystal-clear focus during COVID. Some employers and some employees want to go back to pre-Covid times, which may have meant long hours at the office but a clear separation of work and home. Others want Work From Home to be the new norm in a flexible, knowledge-based economy.

I think the lesson learned is that neither is optimal and that as employers we must be more flexible than we were ever willing to be before. This means changing how we measure contributions and progress – shifting from bums in seats and long hours at the office, to teamwork, engagement and deliverables. We have to prepare for an ongoing remote workforce (it’s here now, to stay) that is less visible the way brick and mortar in-the-office team members are.

This means leaders have to make a much more concerted effort and take a much greater part of their days and weeks to mold the culture of the organization. As leaders, we have to shift from being deliberate about the deliverables and the culture grows from that, to being deliberate about the culture with the deliverables and success flowing from it.

That also means that companies and employers who have people working from home must help those folks ensure it is a home workplace that is conducive to healthy, team-driven work – that includes:

  • Finding ways for teams to be teams – using technology, schedules and innovation to connect people and meet your business goals.
  • A way to shut down and walk away at “closing time.” A way to turn off and tune out. That seemed impossible for many people before COVID and even more so now that their office is in their dining room or guest room.

Much greater focus on mental health
We know COVID has been highly virulent and has been deadly to some cohorts of the population but less so for others. There’s been a fair bit of debate about social responsibility – staying home to let others live.

What we’re starting to see now are the effects on everyone else who thinks they were somewhat immune to COVID. That includes fear and anxiety, mental fogginess as we juggle newfound uncertainties in life, a deepening of depression – folks who had occasional blues are struggling with full depression and others who have never felt a struggle with their mental health are now confused and worried, not knowing why they’re so tired, or foggy, or irritable or emotional.

And while there’s certainly been more discussion about mental health that we have seen recently, this, I hope, will be a priority topic in workplaces and elsewhere throughout 2021 and beyond. We haven’t yet fully acknowledged the damage being done to the general population’s mental health, and workplace mental health, by the changes we’ve gone through and the incredible, ongoing, uncertainty we all face.

At Padraig, we coach mid-level and senior level leaders in the private sector and public sector – arguably some of the most privileged, successful, protected people in our society – and we are hearing, constantly, from them the strains on their mental health and those of their loved ones, their peers and their staff.

Where our conversations before may have focused on how to help that one employee who isn’t making the grade, they’re now focused on how to help all their employees get through the day – particularly when, as leaders, they can’t see those folks. Where our conversations before may have focused on deliverables and goals and finances, we now spend a fair bit of time talking about their own fragility, their fears and uncertainty.

The importance of slowing down
The response we used to hear most often to, “How are you?” was, “Busy.” Now, it’s, “Getting by, considering.” Many of us have let go of “busy” as a source of pride, or martyrdom, and started focusing on what we need to do to get by. Thankfully, we’re starting to focus on what is bringing us joy or comfort right now, not what is making us busy.

In the office, keep the focus on being productive, not busy. We’ve said it before: You can be very busy and not accomplish much. Productive means that you’ve made progress toward the goals that you’ve set. (And as strange as 2020 has been, a new approach to goal setting is still important as we head into 2021.)

Communicate frequently
Good communication is integral to leadership, but never more so than when you’re managing remote teams or a combination of remote and on-site teams. Leading a team through uncertain times also requires more communication, not less.

As leaders, we’re not going to have all the answers with so many uncertainties. We can share what we know, take concerns higher or search for answers and strategize with our teams to change as required. We need to keep asking what our team members need and how they’re doing.

Don’t abandon your core mission in a crisis – double down on it
If you were out at sea in a storm, even if you were handling water on deck or damage to the vessel, an overarching goal would be to keep the ship on course. If you lose your direction, all could be lost. Strong leaders recognize the power of vision, mission and values during troubled times.

As a leader, your core mission will be both creating a personal vision and creating – or embracing – your corporate mission. These are powerful tools, which you can use to provide focus and direction as you adapt and navigate your way through short- and long-term decisions. Why do you do what you do? How do you want to be? How do you want to show up as a leader? How can you adjust your business without losing sight of your mission?

Patrick and other experts were interviewed by Richard Cloutier of CJOB for his year-end program. Click here to listen.

Coach’s Questions

What were your biggest lessons learned in 2020? How is your leadership different heading into 2021 than it was going into 2020? What is your vision and mission for 2021?