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Stop Looking Back—So We Can Move Forward

What if we never go back to pre-Covid reality? If that’s true, then the leaders who are able to accept that, and embrace the future, will be way ahead of those attempting to return to the past.

As I reflect on how the pandemic has impacted my life and the lives of my clients and colleagues, I’ve noticed one critical element missing from the remote working experience: human connection.

We all ask each other, “How are you doing?” But are we truly looking for a full and candid response?

I am not suggesting we are being insincere, but perhaps the phrase has become more of a virtual greeting than a genuine question. My typical response is either “outstanding” or “fantastic.” I mean it, even when it is not true—which is to say, I’m just trying to be positive.

This leads me to wonder, do we bypass important opportunities to understand how each other is doing and coping with life, especially in a time when we are faced with the challenges of living through a global pandemic?

So now, let me pause and ask the question again: How are you doing, really?

An Abrupt Shift

The ground has been rumbling beneath our feet for months, resulting in a seismic shift in how the world operates. To call out a few changes:

• Nearly half (42%) of the U.S. labor force is now working from home full-time.

• About half of all U.S. physicians (48%) are treating patients through telemedicine.

• Total online spending in the U.S. hit $82.5 billion in May, up 77% year-over-year.

• Digital restaurant orders this spring increased by 63% and delivery by 67%.

• April saw a 7% reduction in commercial flights compared to the same time period in 2019.

• Globally, over 2 billion children are out of the classroom, only a fraction of whom are able to trade computer screens for blackboards, due to lack of computers and access to the internet.

While no one could have foreseen the speed or magnitude of change brought about by Covid or predict how the situation will continue to evolve, it is critical that we come to terms with the stark realities of our interconnected world, address the challenges of separating from one another in a time of chaos and confusion, and come to terms with the fact that, prior to the pandemic, we might not have been adapting to change as quickly as we needed to.

Grieving a Loss

At Kotter, we have felt the impact of the post-Covid reality, and our people, like others, have struggled to accept the way things are. It is hard to see the present, or even the future, on its current trajectory, as better, so it is tempting to long for a return to “normal,” or the way things were before the pandemic.

But what if we don’t? What if we are never going to go back to the way things used to be?

If that’s true, then the organizational leaders who are able open their eyes to this reality—whether they like it, or not—and work to embrace the future will be way ahead of those attempting to return to the past.

It’s true that we have lost something—failure to recognize this would be some form of extreme denial. We have lost our handshakes and watercooler conversations; our conference room banter and communal coffee breaks; our nights out with friends after work; and travel-filled vacation days.

Similar to losing a loved one, we all have to find some way to let go of the pre-Covid world, and maybe that means, to some extent, that we owe it to ourselves to grieve the lives we used to live. That’s not being negative, rather it is a critical step to moving forward.

But we still have a job to do. And looking back will not get us to where we need to go.

A New Starting Point

What’s interesting about our current predicament is that most of us are using the pre-Covid world as some sort of “starting point”—as a benchmark for the place to which we want to return. But, in holding on so tightly to the past, we are tethering ourselves to an elusive starting point that no longer exists.

If Apple or Google or Facebook had run their companies with the idea of returning to what was, we might still have rotary phones, boom boxes and cassette tapes or be passing handwritten notes. Astonishing medical advancements may never have occurred, and any hope for an effective Covid vaccine in months vs. years would be unrealistic.

It’s worth asking—do we really want things to return to the way they were? Or is the past just where we felt comfortable? Do we really fear the future, or are we unsettled by the present and uncertain about the changes required to create our new normal?

While Covid is unique in the fact that it has woken us up, globally, to complex, rapid and volatile change, the pandemic is actually a microcosm of what’s been happening for decades. The pace of change has been increasing in both speed and complexity for at least the last 30 years—but very few people were doing enough to learn how to adapt quickly and effectively.

We shouldn’t want to go back to the old normal. It wasn’t serving us well. At Kotter, we also anticipate that even more disruptive change is coming, and that Covid is not the “one-time event” many people might assume it to be. Viewing the world through this lens, it is important to find ways to move forward rather than getting stuck in the past—and this will come down to embracing the post-Covid world, even if we don’t yet “like it.”

Stepping Forward

Oddly, it feels like people are driving while looking in the rearview mirror—but, instead of wanting to go forward, what they really want is to go back. But, in life, we don’t have the luxury of that choice: we have to move forward and the sooner we realize this truth, the better able we will be to create the conditions for a happier and more meaningful experience.

Happiness isn’t found in yesterday or tomorrow; it’s found right here, in this moment. Happiness is something you create for yourself, rather than something that is handed to you by other people or outside conditions. As Victor Frankl once said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

If what Frankl says is true, now more than ever, we must focus on what we can control in life and letting go of what we can’t.

We can control what we put in our body. We can control when we choose to go to sleep. We can reevaluate how much we are sitting at our desks and perhaps use the time we would have spent commuting to walk around the block or pause for a ten-minute mindfulness meditation. We can take time after work to: practice a new skill, learn a new language, cook a new dish from a different culture or spend time with our partner or children or friends or pet.

While business leaders can’t control the virus, they can re-imagine how to build meaningful connections from home and transform culture by actively shifting the focus away from the negative—reframing perceived losses, to instead consider what might have been gained. Leaders can reflect on how this pandemic has pushed their organizations to evolve more quickly than many would have thought possible and, in doing so, realize all the ways in which their business wasn’t adapting prior to Covid.

It is possible for us to grow stronger through this challenging time. To be forced to dig deep inside ourselves and uncover that hidden wellspring of resilience—that ability to rise in the face of an obstacle. Relationships can deepen through shared struggles and knowledge can be gained in recognizing all the changes we still need to make to thrive in this new and unfamiliar reality.

Perhaps it all starts with a phone call. Maybe, if we were to truly ask another colleague, friend or family member, “How are you doing, really?” we could open the door to forging deeper connections and realizing greater meaning.


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