EMBRACING 2021: FIVE AREAS OF FOCUS

We are nursing physical and mental hangovers from 2020. We are feeling unsettled as the New Year starts. We want to shake off the lingering effects and move on with our lives in 2021. We will, in time.

We want personal freedom and to feel comfortable again. We want to shake hands, kiss and hug each other hello again. We will, and it will be all the more treasured when we do.

We want to have more certainty and control over our businesses, workplaces, and spaces again. We will, over time with new parameters.

We want things to go ‘back to normal’. But they won’t. And that’s actually ok. Our previous ‘normal’ was NOT a place we felt comfortable, secure, or happy, as great as we might remember it now. In fact, we were straining against the rigidity of out-of-date structures, hierarchy, and policies. We were daunted by transformations and updates we needed to make for the Future of Work.

What’s possible now? The world has been moving on while so many of us have been captive at home. That’s the certainty. Now, we can be intentional and create a better reality going forward. When we recognize underlying conditions, we can reframe our vision of the future, craft viable new environments, and advance again with reasonable expectations of stability and sustained growth. Here are five areas to focus on to emerge and thrive through 2021:

CONDITIONS — The COVID19 virus has caused extraordinary disruption to our world and work, our health and happiness. However, while we have been experiencing extreme circumstances, the marketplace and fundamentals of our working lives have also been changing irrevocably because the Future of Work has arrived, accelerated by the pandemic.

Marketplace volatility, business restrictions, and concerns about customer and employee safety have forced rapid, technology-driven responses and adjustments. Companies have digitized, automated, and re-oriented operations, adopting and integrating new platforms, applications, data-gathering mechanisms and more. Long before 2020, we predicted these updates, but many had been dismissed, resisted or postponed. Do you expect any be reversed now they have finally happened?

While we yearn to put the pandemic behind us, let’s dissuade ourselves of nostalgic notions to reestablish ‘traditional’ work conditions which are not responsive, flexible, or data-rich enough to handle faster, more complex, more demanding Future-of-Work needs. Instead, during this period of ongoing disruption, we can learn from 2020’s make-shift adjustments and formally transform our organizations for the underlying reality of evolving environments which we have long been anticipating. Then, we can plan, transition, and our businesses can start to emerge later this year.

CONTROL — Perhaps the most destabilizing aspect of 2020 was the uncertainty, the inability to predict, the forced pivot upon pivot, the loss of control over our lives and business trajectories. Being buffeted by an invisible virus has been exhausting, disorienting, and financially devastating for so many. Management has often been cautious to (re)hire, concerned about new market changes, limiting measured progress. Meanwhile, employees’ associated professional and personal anxieties have significantly affected their well-being and performance.

However, as human beings, we are supremely adaptable. We can absorb the stability of change as a constant and regain a sense of control, reframing our circumstances and recognizing that dynamic conditions can be manageable. We can feel more comfortable about what’s ahead, if we create multiple contingency plans that anticipate different risks and responses. Then, we can forecast and share our resource needs transparently, so employees and independent contractors are able to gain some control over their lives.

In 2021, our ability to determine our destinies will be greatly improved if strategies are based on Future-of-Work principles and conditions, tried and tested already by pioneering companies. For example, if we implement technology and processes for the long-term that track (detailed and flexible) workflow, facilitate project work, and optimize budgets and platforms for cross-discipline, decentralized teamwork.

CULTURE — Most of us didn’t notice the importance of company culture until we were so scattered and feeling vulnerable. Without daily interactions in person to confirm and sustain our relationships, we have felt disconnected and struggled to bridge distances especially unsettled by highly unpredictable circumstances. Furthermore, raw from grief, isolation, stress, and jarring changes, discomfort has increased as entrenched disparities, discrimination and injustice based on race, gender, and other dimensions have been highlighted. We need to address deep-rooted issues that have been undermining trust, causing pain, and breeding conflict.

A strong corporate culture, based on shared values, provides the connective tissue that people need, especially when employees are widely dispersed or under enormous pressure on the frontline. A common core of tenets that can ground and connect everyone naturally encompasses inclusion and embraces open-mindedness. Then critical safe spaces can be created, conversations opened up, greater understanding achieved, pain shared, and new commitments made. We witnessed companies like CVS Health and WPP investing in their cultures and values in 2020 and experiencing significant benefits.

As we look ahead this year and anticipate additional months of remote working, managers and employees will be able to collaborate effectively if cultures are emphasized which connect and support distributed workers with common values. Cultural values influence mindsets and guide behaviors, so it helps to identify relevant values for your organization that promote cohesive, emotionally intelligent, and transparent interactions such as: inclusion, integrity, open-mindedness, empathy, and honesty.

COMMUNITY — From people on the frontline put under extraordinary pressure to folks struggling from isolation or overwhelm working from home, we have truly understood the importance of our relationships to support each other over 2020. The first months of this New Year are likely to stretch our endurance as hopeful expectations are dashed by the more contagious COVID variant, weather- and holiday-driven continued case surges, faltering vaccine distribution, and continued social unrest.

Fortifying the bonds of your work community will make a big difference as to how well everyone gets through the next uneven months ahead. Frequent, thoughtful check-ins will help nurture relationships, exchanging meaningful rather than perfunctory updates. Executives can set the example and urge managers to keep frequent watch for signals and clues that team members are succeeding, surviving, or struggling, recognizing that situations can shift quickly at times. Mental health issues are widespread and increasing as the pandemic’s impact continues.

Research has shown employees were feeling more isolated than managers in 2020. Team members working from home were missing out on interactions and updates from senior executives and often not feeling valued as part of the work community. At the same time, sales representatives had critical data about customer sentiment and how hesitant or primed potential buyers might be. This year, you will benefit from increasing information flow up, down, and across your organization to strengthen relationship bonds, boost collegial support, and utilize intelligence promptly to improve market responses.

CONSCIOUSNESS — Over the turbulent months of 2020, we reeled this way and that. We were disturbed and distressed. We gave and received support. We figured out what we miss, who and what matters, and why. We learned about ourselves — how, where and when we work well, and don’t. We became more conscious of our working lives and how we intersect and interact, or not, with our family, friends, and co-workers.

We gleaned more truths about others. We shared discomfort and vulnerability which enabled us to acknowledge and better understand different lived experiences and issues. When we empathize rather than judge, question rather than assume, listen rather than talk, and lean in rather than turn away, we can become more inclusive and empathetic leaders, managers, and teammates. We can check with colleagues how they actually experience us. We can open up to be more conscious of other people’s codes and contexts that are different from our own.

This year, let’s use our new awareness and understanding to reconfigure our individual and intertwined — while often more dispersed — working lives to be more productive and enjoyable. Empathy skills are both essential and strategic to integrate into our work operations and habits. Practicing empathy at work improves results through better interactions — from managing and motivating to overseeing and operating, communicating and collaborating. Empathy also aids identification of and sensitized attention to mental health issues related to the pandemic.

Despite the calamity, confusion and chaos of last year, we DO understand where the viral catalyst has catapulted us. For 2021, with conscious, focused efforts to look forward, not back, we can forge much better futures for ourselves and our businesses and emerge from this period successfully with sustainable growth.

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