With the end of the pandemic (hopefully) in sight, most of us are eagerly waiting to go “back to normal,” but there are some things that maybe might never go back to the way they were before. It’s interesting to think about what habits of pandemic life could or should remain with us after things have returned to normal.
Will we continue to enjoy the calming power of frequent walks around the neighborhood? Will Takeout Tuesday still be a thing? How about weekly Zoom calls with distant family members?
Why not? Many of the perspectives we’ve gained and rituals we’ve embraced during the pandemic could be beneficial in post-pandemic life, and I suspect we’ll find they’re worth holding onto.
It’s the same in business. As a startup founder and CEO, I know that COVID-19 has driven home several lessons that will endure in how our company is run well into the future.
Here are the five biggest ones I want to retain once we get back to normal, and I think you should embrace them too.
1. Prioritizing employee mental health was long overdue
Companies want their workers to be healthy, but pre-pandemic, the emphasis was typically placed on physical health and wellness.
While many employees have had access to at least some mental health services through their company medical plans, open conversations about mental health and well-being were uncommon. From standing desks and healthy office snacks to activities like step-counting contests, the focus generally was on the physical.
No more. Though mental health already should have been a prime concern in a digital age that is exerting heavier, ever-changing professional demands and threatening work-life balance, pandemic-related stress has finally put mental health on equal (or even higher) footing with physical health in corporate life.
Like many other companies, ours expanded our wellness benefit in 2020 to not only include, for instance, a gym membership but anything that promotes emotional well-being. We’ve also sought to remove any stigma around an employee taking a mental health day.
Fortunately, I don’t think this is toothpaste that can be put back in the tube. Companies would be foolish to ever retreat from this increased attention to mental health. Supporting employee mental health is not only the right thing to do, it’s good for business.
2. The future of work is ‘remote plus’
My company already was all remote before COVID-19, believing that the increased employee productivity, ability to hire the best talent regardless of location, and elimination of office-related costs are irresistibly huge benefits. But I’ve learned something in the last year: even in an all-remote model, it’s critical for teammates to have some in-person quality time.
You can’t expect people to build connectedness and trust when they see each other exclusively as squares on a Zoom screen. Being physically together, even if it’s just two to four times a year, is necessary to foster a collaborative company culture.
Nothing seems quite the same when employees exist in a 100% virtual world – not even the company holiday party. I went all out in December to try to make ours shine. During the four-hour online event, I scheduled a beer tasting (with brews shipped ahead of time to partygoers), a performance by a magician, and a Bingo contest.
Everyone said they had a lot of fun… but that it just wasn’t as good as being together.
The pandemic may have accelerated the trend toward remote work, but I think a lasting lesson is the value of a “remote plus” approach in which employees work wherever they want most of the time but still come together on occasion.
3. Business travel is often unnecessary
There have been times in my career I spent 50 to 75% of every month on the road to meeting with customers, connecting with employees, pitching investors, and attending trade shows. Even after COVID-19 is in the rear-view mirror, I doubt that number will ever again exceed 30%.
The pandemic has shown that so much can be accomplished in a simple Zoom meeting. I suppose we knew that before the pandemic, but it was more customary to get on a plane and interact in person.
The last year has proven that was often a silly waste of time (not to mention CO2 emissions). In-person meetings have their time and place, but my road warrior days are over.
4. Stretching a dollar is good
As in the Great Depression and other hard times throughout history, I think the pandemic has made thriftiness a virtue.
During a global crisis, you inevitably evaluate expenditures more stringently. So while I may have sprung for an elaborate online holiday party to bolster employee morale, I also have been putting our capital expenditures for things like software tools under a microscope.
I think COVID-19 has reminded everyone that carefully examining every expenditure for ROI is always smart.
5. A good leader knows how to trust
I think back to a previous company I founded and led, one that had physical offices. I was a hands-on CEO by nature and I’d often roll up my sleeves and work closely with people on a project or task.
But with my new company and its all-remote model, it would be hard to micromanage even if I wanted to. When everyone is at home, you just have to trust that people are getting their jobs done well. Which, of course, they nearly always do, without the CEO looking over their shoulder.
I suspect that many executives have become more trusting during the pandemic and that many will remain so.
I’m reluctant to call any of these five lessons silver linings, since it’s hard to find good in a pandemic that has killed 2.4 million worldwide as of this writing, battered the global economy, and disrupted life for everyone. But we can’t ignore that we learn from hardships.
Business leaders, just like anyone else, should cherish the perspectives that the last year has revealed or reinforced. In many cases, they can only make themselves and their companies better.