The pandemic caused most companies to press the pause button. With shops and restaurants closed, transportation reduced to a bare minimum and consumers trapped inside their houses, what is left for a cinema, a gym, a hotel or a travel agency? For another group of companies, it was time to press the eject button and put another model into action, changing the distribution channels and the way of doing business, as some retailers and schools have done. Finally, for a smaller group, it was time to hit the forward button and take advantage of the opportunities that every crisis offers, as digital retailers, supermarkets, pharmacies, telecommunication companies, food, medicine and cleaning products industries are doing.
Likewise, some executives are going through the same moment in their careers. Some are working insanely to cope with increased demand, others are working hard to help their companies survive, while others are working less due to the reduction of economic activity in general, or because they are forced into a leave of absence or reduced working hours. The truth is that none of them could foresee the unimaginable in their careers. However, given that it is among us, what can we do? The suggestion is to press the reset button, because our life will probably be different from the past.
Most humans do not live well with ambiguity. We tend to prefer certainty to hope. But the uncertainty of when the pandemic will end (if it will) leads us to conclude that almost nothing in life is black or white, but is painted in various shades of grey. How many times in your life have you postponed a decision due to lack of information? How many times have you wondered if your understanding of information was correct, versus listening to someone thinking from another angle? Ambiguity has always been more associated with the negative, such as indecision, imprecision, hesitation and uncertainty. Nevertheless, in this pandemic, how many times have we seen governments go back and forth on issues like lockdown, use of alternative drugs for treatment or the paradox of preserving health versus economy? Living better with ambiguity is certainly here to stay, which will lead us to reflecting more on our decisions.
The pandemic has also made us think about what is essential versus superfluous. During the quarantine, how many clothes or jewelry did you need/want to wear? How many times did you use your car to go to the supermarket? Likewise, think of all the activities you do at work or even in your personal life that can be eliminated, simplified, or even reduced. What about those tasks that really are essential but you somehow procrastinate because they are perhaps less interesting than others? It’s easy to keep busy at work without doing anything or little, but given the fragility by which we saw businesses and people being affected, why not think in the same way about our work at the office or at home? What is really essential for you? Make a list! Focus on what matters, what can make a difference for you, for the people around you and for your company.
Human beings evolved to live together – in fact, according to many anthropologists, this is the competitive advantage of our species versus other hominids – but this pandemic forced us to live and work separately. So we are suffering from this, whether that is due to the desire to hug our parents and grandparents, to have a conversation with friends at a bar or to read the body language of an employee when transmitting the news. At the same time we are physically separated, we are increasingly connected virtually, whether through Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp or FaceTime, speaking regularly with family or friends we normally did not see frequently. Even professional contacts are more accessible virtually than in person, either because people have more time available without having to travel or because we are more sensitive to the call of others. Either way, it shows our desire for connection. And how have you been working on your network of personal and professional relationships? Wouldn’t it be a good time to reconnect with employers or former colleagues, college friends you have not spoken to in a long time? What will it be like to absorb ideas outside your usual circle of relationships? How will it be to practice a hobby with your family for which you did not have time in the past? The need for engagement is, and will be, increasingly relevant in the anticipated new normal.
Our educational system has prepared us to always answer the questions we are asked. In a way, Generation X, which today is still the majority in the leadership of large organizations, was educated to absorb the content coming from a professor and, particularly in Brazil and Latin America, to plan, since our economies are very volatile and we need to adjust to constant changes. However, the current pandemic shows us that we do not have all the answers and that everything changes very quickly, so the ability to adapt, to be flexible and to ask questions instead of giving answers becomes more important. How many times in your job have you been more concerned with responding quickly to your boss rather than reflecting what is behind that question? For example, the Japanese developed the lean methodology that determines the root cause of a problem through an exercise of successive questions, such as “The 5 Whys?”. So exercise your curiosity: Do more asking than answering.
Difficult times like these test our resilience. The more resilient we become, the faster we recover from adversity and the faster we learn from it, just as a material absorbs energy and returns to its original shape. The best thing is that resilience can be developed; it is not something you are born with or without. First, leave behind the realities that never come back. There is no use in regretting that our workplaces will be different from the current ones, as well as our future air travel. Close that chapter. Then accept and manage the transition. From there, live with the ambiguity for the new, test the pros and cons and see how you can innovate in this change. Finally, redefine your vision and purpose, how you will want to live and work in this new context. Let’s imagine two employees in a supermarket who didn’t stop working during the crisis: The first one understands that his job is to place products in the shelves or to scan bar codes all day; while the second understands that he works in an essential activity, one of the few that connects people to the previous world, and that every time the consumer goes to the store and sees the shelves full, he has a sign of hope – that the world has not stopped and will not stop, so his work brings happiness and perspective to people – which employee do you think will be more resilient, more engaged and happier? Which of them do you think will be feeling more fear, anxiety, desire to give up? Well… purpose moves mountains… so what is your purpose?
Take advantage of this global gap to rethink your life and career. First take care of yourself, physically and mentally, live well with ambiguity and focus on what is relevant. Connect with others. Look for purpose in what you do, in your relationships. Try to do what you like and where you stand out, you will be happier and grow as a person and professional. Expand your perspective, what you can or cannot control, what you know or should ask. I am sure you will be different and better than you thought.