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Takeaways from 2020 to carry into 2021

While many of us would love to say goodbye and good riddance to 2020 and all of its challenges, we’ve all learned a few valuable lessons from this tough year. Like resiliency, epidemiology, cutting hair, turning off the mute button and how to get through the day without baked goods in the break room.

So as we have closed the book on 2020, here are some takeaways we should carry with us into 2021:

Engagement rose as we rose to the occasion.

A Gallup survey shows employee engagement increased during the early months of the pandemic. I don’t have empirical evidence as to why, but I suspect the “we’re all in this together” aspect led to a greater sense of belonging and camaraderie. Being part of the shared solution as we devised ways to keep projects moving likely deepened connections to the company’s purpose. And simply being challenged to do new things in different ways seemed to boost engagement and excitement. Going forward then, the lesson might be: Don’t underestimate your teams. They will surprise you with their desire to overcome obstacles to “make it happen.”

Hybrid workplaces are on the horizon.

Long before the pandemic, the ability to work from home a few days a week showed up on employee satisfaction surveys. It has become a top priority for many job seekers, with some even saying the option to work remotely is more important than salary. And a recent Bloomberg survey reports the majority of employees want to continue working from home at least two days a week after the pandemic passes — but only 26% want to work from home full time. To continue to recruit and retain top talent then, many of us will need to implement a hybrid situation when we return to the office.

Working remotely can lead to overworking.

Without clear boundaries between work and home, people tend to work longer hours. At the same time, they are often reluctant to take time off or even sick days. But working from home doesn’t eliminate the need for rest. To avoid burnout, we need to encourage people to take breaks — and help them make the space to do so. Google recently started giving employees an additional two days off a year and launched “no meetings weeks.” The aim is to make it easier for people to rest and get away. Or simply clear time to focus on their most rewarding, meaningful projects.

Autonomy is an accelerator.

Fear of the unknown is powerful, and some managers were afraid their employees would slack off while working from home. Some companies went as far as installing software and other devices to measure productivity. And most were quickly reassured their people were as productive, if not more so, as when they were on site. This proves that in most cases, team members do not need to be under watchful eyes to stay motivated.

Conversely, those who were monitored were less productive and more stressed. Worse, they lost trust in their leaders and satisfaction in their jobs. Because being trusted and empowered to manage how and when you work is a huge motivator. Teams are more innovative and collaborative when they have the freedom to adapt processes to what’s best for them. Individuals grow, stretch and thrive when given new challenges — and the autonomy and support to achieve them.

The late Zappo’s founder Tony Hsieh abolished all metrics for his call center staff, allowing them to spend as much time as they want on customer calls, even giving them the power to “fire” customers who are disrespectful. So once we’re back in the office in some fashion, let’s not slip into micromanaging patterns. Encourage and train your supervisors to act like mentors and coaches. Give people opportunity and confidence to spread their wings, take risks, strive and thrive.

Virtual commutes can bridge our worlds.

Now that I’m not driving back and forth to work and meetings, I’m missing the news I used to get on my car radio. But that’s a small thing compared to what many of us are missing: the clear definition between work and home. While we shouldn’t have to leave our entire identities at the door, it would be naïve to think there is no separation between our personal and professional selves. And most of us need a little time to transition from one to the other.

So even if your commute is only to the next room, consider scheduling a 15-minute “mental commute” at the beginning and end of your work day. Use this time to ease into and out of your professional and personal mindsets. Maybe prioritize your to-do list, exercise, grab a coffee or call a friend. Ultimately, this will help you wind up and down and hopefully put a clear stop to your work day, so you don’t continue working into the evening. To make it easier, Microsoft Teams plans to launch a “virtual commute” feature next year to help you schedule your “drive to nowhere.”

Mental health is on our minds.

I think one of the positive, lasting outcomes of the pandemic will be an increased awareness of our responsibility toward our team members’ mental health. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports more than 50% of adults have experienced a decline in their mental health since the beginning of the pandemic. In response, employers are addressing and talking about mental, emotional and behavioral health more than ever before.

We’re normalizing conversations, openly discussing what used to be “taboo” issues. Proactively checking in and asking, “How are you, really?” Learning to recognize the signs of depression, anxiety, addiction and isolation. And working to reduce the stigma and promote each other’s holistic well-being. This is long overdue and we should continue to provide the time, support and connection to resources long into the future.

Clear expectations build confidence.

Remote working opens a Pandora’s box of unwritten rules and expectations. And if new people have joined your team in the past nine months, they may be especially confused about what’s OK and what’s not. They might stress about things like: If my dog can’t wait until lunchtime for a walk, can I take my break at 11 a.m. instead of noon? If my office doubles as a kindergarten classroom, can I turn my camera off on a video call? Do I have to take PTO or get permission from my supervisor to zip out to pick my child up at school?

These cultural and emotional unwritten norms may be non-issues for many, but they could cause anxiety for others. Either way, when you clarify expectations, you give people confidence and security. So maybe in your routine pulse surveys, you can ask people if there is anything they would like to clear up, and then address it as a follow up.

Younger team members may need extra attention.

My biggest worry about working remotely is for our younger team members. I think back to my 20s and how much I learned from my more seasoned colleagues almost by osmosis, but also by popping into their offices. Seeing what they were working on. Watching them do what they did. Soaking up their advice and expertise. I think we lose some of that when working remotely.

Additionally, for younger people, much of their social life often revolves around work friends. And studies show those under 25 are the most eager to return to the workplace, citing feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety about their career growth. So encourage your senior team members to reach out and take younger colleagues under their wings. It doesn’t need to be a formal mentorship, but casual sharing of experience. And when it is safe to return to the office, consider emphasizing or even requiring your younger team members to be on-site at a least a few days a week.

Working parents are everyday heroes.

It’s always been difficult for working parents to juggle the demands of work and home. There’s a problematic disconnect between the hours of the work day and the school day, sports and activity schedules, summer and school vacations. And then came the pandemic! While it can be nearly impossible for some parents to get work done while their children are attending school remotely, the silver lining is that COVID-19 put parents’ challenges right before our eyes, literally.

Going forward, the Biden administration plans to push for alignment between the work and school day. At our workplaces, we can continue to provide the flexibility, accommodations and compassion we’ve offered during this period. And we also need to be flexible with expectations. Because by allowing parents to pause when their kids come home from school, for example, we risk causing them to work past midnight after everyone goes to bed.

So consider postponing, reducing or redistributing tasks that are not time-sensitive, like certain types of training or paperwork. Or limiting expectations and pressure to take on extra assignments like mentoring, organizing events or serving on committees. Doing so frees parents to focus on higher-value projects during their limited hours — and hopefully prevents overworking.

Gratitude will get us through.

Early in the pandemic, even I, a die-hard optimist, had moments where I struggled to stay positive. A friend suggested I begin each day by saying out loud five things I am grateful for. As I reflect on the past year, I’m grateful for the valuable lessons that have come out of the difficult circumstances. They present opportunities to make our great workplaces even greater — wherever we’re working. And that’s a great way to stay positive and hopeful during the home stretch.

Lauren Dixon is board chair of Dixon Schwabl Inc., a marketing communications firm with offices in Rochester and Buffalo, New York.