When the pandemic started last year, many (probably most) of us desperately wanted to hit the “reset” button. We wanted to go back to a place we were before, where things were normal, and masks weren’t mandatory, and going out to a restaurant, bar or social event (let alone the office) isn’t a potentially lethal activity.
We didn’t get that, of course. Not by a long shot. What we got was a protracted period—now pushing sixteen months—of lockdowns, social restrictions, juggling of personal protective equipment and maintaining physical distancing in any and all things. All the while, we saw infections skyrocket exponentially, ICU admissions rise and a horrific death toll continue to mount. Health care systems have been pushed to the breaking point repeatedly (some would argue they’ve been past that for most of the pandemic, and they wouldn’t be wrong).
We didn’t get a reset button. We didn’t get close to a reset button. For many, it feels like the last year and more has been one long, endless hitting of the pause button. There was no rewinding, no fast-forwarding our way out of here, and precious little of play.
At the start of the pandemic, there were many that talked of using their time productively to pursue new hobbies, learn new skills, read backlogs of books, catch up on work and reinvent themselves and their careers. There were others that speculated that their pandemic experience was not going to be the productive boon others seemed to promise. Now that we are on the verge of figuring out whatever the next normal might be, people are taking stock and reckoning with where they are, what they accomplished and how they are feeling about their pandemic experience.
My experience is probably emblematic of many, although it didn’t begin that way. My pandemic experience started later than for some; the first month, I managed to distract myself with cleaning out my wife’s childhood home in preparation for it being sold. That was an exercise we had avoided for several months prior, so getting it accomplished was an arguable win. It meant that I had a physically demanding—if not particularly mentally consuming—project to keep me occupied most days.
Once the house was done, reality set in. For me, many of the last few months have been exercises in experiencing the elasticity of time; the months have flown by, and at the same time they have dragged out interminably. Life has been fast and slow and little in between. It has also been incredibly tense; like many, there have been more times than I have liked or have felt proud of where I was a raw nerve, exposed too close to the service. What should have been simple frustrations generated disproportionate reactions.
An enduring experience has been that everything has felt harder than it should be. That is an experience that continues even to this day. What should be relatively easy to accomplish isn’t, and requires too many steps that are more complicated and annoying than strictly necessary to get to the finish line. I often feel like I am pushing a rope uphill on far too many fronts, with far too little progress to show for it.
Judging by many reports, I am not alone. Statistics have showed that the workday for most Americans (and yes, this is fact-checked) increased 40%—or more than three hours—during the pandemic. At the same time, people are stretched beyond their normal expectations and commitments, even without the challenge and overwhelm of working on the front line of the pandemic. Caring for family members—aging or young, engaging in home schooling, being a source of emotional support all while managing the household and dealing with shopping all make for very full days.
For many people, the feeling is that the pandemic hasn’t been a reset button. It’s been a very protracted pause, a Sisyphean effort of doing all the things on all the fronts to keep all the balls in the air, while making very little forward progress.
While it may—and arguably does—feel this way for me more times than I would like to consider, I would be lying if I said it was fully true. I’ve been fortunate in that I don’t have kids to raise (although there are four furry beasties who are surprisingly and persistently demanding of attention). My wife and I actually like each other and enjoy each others’ company, while still having enough space to get away from each other when needed. Apart from frustrations with finding toilet paper, yeast and barbecue charcoal (did not expect the last one) weekly shopping trips have been manageable, and needing to actually plan our meals has meant we are eating better while wasting far less food than was true in the past.
More to the point, for all of my frustrations, I’ve gotten a great deal done over the pandemic. I’ve not read all the books or taken the courses I might have hoped, but that’s niggling in the grand scheme of things. I have managed to get a blog post and a newsletter out weekly since the pandemic started, which has been a run of sustained creativity that I’ve not managed before in the last decade. I completely redesigned the web site that hosts my blog. I also redesigned my corporate web site. I designed and launched technobility.online, the online home of the webinar series that Peter de Jager and I jointly host.
All of that, though, was a warm-up act for what came next. Starting last September, I conceived, designed and launched Strategy Making, a personal strategy development workshop designed to help people to embrace, harness and realize their desired futures. It was piloted to tremendous success in November and December, reinvented in the first quarter of this year, and launched in its full and final form again in April. It’s a program that I’ve dreamed of building for years, and that is only possible because of the pandemic. It is also work I’m incredibly proud of, with content that reflects what I consider to be some of the best work of my career.
While all of this has been going on, I’ve also been the program chair for a national academic conference that will run for four days this upcoming weekend. That has included attracting internationally acclaimed keynote speakers, designing and devising professional development workshops and bringing all my cat-herding skills to bear in harnessing the attention and output of 73 academics responsible for the review, coordination and programming of 19 divisions of papers.
For all of my frustrations and resentments and reactions and sensitivities, I’ve arguably had a pretty productive pandemic. There has been less actual consulting work in those months than I might like, but at the same time that waning has been what has allowed me to focus on everything else. For all that I’m frustrated with what I haven’t done, or how many experiences have been exercises in frustration, there is a lot that has been accomplished.
My actual productive experience may seem like a lot, and a lot to be proud of. It is arguably more than some have managed, but less than others. Interviewing one of my keynote speakers last week, he has managed to write no less than six books during the pandemic, four of which have been published and another two of which are being edited. He’s working on a seventh right now, while still managing client work and coaching and maintaining a regular communication cycle with collaborators around the world.
What is important to recognize is that everything that has happened so far is done. It’s water under the bridge, and you can’t reverse its flow or demand a re-do, no matter what level of office you might hold. The only choice you have is where things go from here.
We are verging on opening up to whatever our next new normal is. That is an open question, and plays out on a number of levels. Firstly, there’s wherever your country and region is in the pandemic recovery, and the degree to which vaccination is a part of that. My country has recently gone from far behind to close to the top of vaccination rates in terms of first doses, although today it lags behind on second doses. That is changing daily, as our vaccine supply is finally coming online (a product of supply chains, contract commitments and the fact that we have no domestic vaccine production).
Where your organization is in terms of reopening is also a factor. For those on the front-line, they never went home. Some organizations have notably committed to allow work-from-home options in perpetuity, others are accelerating their expected return to the office and some are taking a cautious approach, with hybrid working arrangements expected to feature for at least the next little while.
Finally, there is where you are in your desire to go back to work, and out into the real world. Partly that’s a product of personality and personal preferences; there is a subset that arguably liked and thrived in a world of social distancing. And there is a different subset (myself occasionally included) that climbed the walls. A big part of this, though, is about your perception of continued risk. That’s going to be framed by how you perceive and trust your employer, how you relate to and trust your colleagues and how you feel in general about what we know—and what we still don’t know—about on-going transmission, threats of variants and the protection that vaccination offers us.
My own personal take is I was thrilled by the guidance that came out that said once you are double-vaccinated, you can pretty much go about your business (taking precautions to protect those that are not, and adhering to requirements and conventions that exist in your organization, your community and your country). I’m comfortable that the guidance is science-based, and I’m becoming increasingly assured that it will continue to be so. Science functions not based on guarantees of “this is safe,” but cautions of “we don’t think this isn’t safe.” So the science may change, and we will need to continue to pay attention to it, but it now has a voice that is getting listened to.
There is a different consideration here, though, that is important to address and acknowledge. I spoke earlier in this column (and earlier in the pandemic) about the desire for a reset button. We never really got it then. We all—and I mean all of us—do have one now. It’s important to think about how—and when, and if—we want to press it. What that reset button drives is how we get perceived as we come out of this. It is our trigger of potential reinvention. It defines how we claim what we do, where we go and who we are as this all, finally, comes to if not an end then at least a transition of status.
We have been—all of us—in a liminal state for the last sixteen months. We all got set adrift unceremoniously. There was little warning, no preparation and very little guidance to be found. Having stewed in our liminal juices for as long as we have, each of us is about to climb out, dry off and proceed forward. There are very real questions about how you want to do that, and very real opportunities to move forward and show up differently than we have in the past.
Every one of us has been through an incredible amount. Whether you are proud of your pandemic experience, frustrated by it or resigned to having endured it—or some combination of all three—there is a choice in terms of where you go from here. No one has any expectations that they can reliably place on what you do next. You have absolute freedom to shift any expectations that exist, and manage and set new ones that you want going forward. That’s not just about if, when or whether you work from home. It’s the full gamut of the role that you play, the work that you do and the integration you have with others.
Agency has always existed. Its presence is tied to confidence and the belief that we can make a difference. As the world opens up again, we will never have a better opportunity to shift perceptions of the difference we can make and the way we want to make it. The time to make that choice is now, before expectations solidify and the new normal takes on whatever form it will. What that choice looks like is up to you.