This past weekend marked six months since we closed our office and started working remotely in anticipation of the national lockdown. This milestone was a sobering reminder of how many lives have been upended as a result of both the health crisis and the economic fallout. We used to joke about the hyperbole of “everything has changed” in thought leadership, but it’s true in this instance.
I think most of us expected that we’d spend a month or two at home before resuming our normal routine. Right around the time that expectation gave way to persistent uncertainty and dread, the country was shaken by the murder of George Floyd and sustained protests for racial justice.
I’ve started coming into a largely empty office to break up the week, and downtown Chicago remains a ghost town. Whatever comfort I get from the familiar surroundings is counterbalanced by the surreal feeling of being someplace that used to be full of energy. A few thoughts from 2020 so far:
People make the world go ‘round. To me, so much of what makes life worth living is celebrating, commiserating, and sharing stories and ideas with others. From a work perspective, that’s been one of the biggest changes during the pandemic. When our team was in the office, we helped get each other through challenging projects or bad days. Just having a colleague share support or a laugh provided a good reset and made everything better. Working remotely often makes you feel as if you’re going through things alone—whether a tough work project, balancing work and family, or just managing the day-to-day disruption of the pandemic. Video calls are no substitute, and it’s incredibly difficult to maintain a company culture without informal interactions.
As last Friday was the 19th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, I thought about how we collectively bounced back. Over the weekend, I watched “The Concert for New York City” to mark the occasion and found myself looking for clues in the grieving process. What struck me, besides the fact that the Who stole the show, was that catharsis requires shared experience. The pandemic has largely robbed us of the ability to physically get together.
Each person has had a different journey. Even if you’re a world champion in compartmentalization, you have been deeply affected by the past six months. For some, the pandemic has been an ever-present force making everything we do more difficult or stressful. For others, it is a focal point that has to be addressed first before we can manage routine tasks. Throw in the challenges and worries that each of us deals with each week and you can be having a vastly different experience than your coworkers. My colleagues are incredibly resilient and resourceful, and as the time has passed, I’ve been alternately encouraged and amazed by how everyone has adapted.
We will be back. The pandemic has been accompanied by an endless array of stories about how some foundational elements of the way we live won’t survive. Big cities will wither as people flee to the suburbs and seek more space. Companies will jettison their physical offices for more flexible, virtual work arrangements. Business travel will never again reach prepandemic levels. Shopping in physical stores will soon be a relic of a bygone era. These sorts of predictions have been made before, usually in the immediate aftermath of an event. I believe they often underestimate how much people crave a return to normalcy, even an altered version.
I know we can continue this way for as long as it takes, and we are all committed to doing our part to reach the other side of this pandemic as soon as we can
And yet. Getting to the end of a week doesn’t feel like the same accomplishment without people to join the celebration. I imagine being back in the office with my colleagues, throwing an album on the turntable, sharing lunch on Friday, enjoying impromptu happy hours, marking milestones together. Those moments are what I treasure, and I miss them.
In the meantime, all we can do is be kind to one another, take a little extra time to understand what our colleagues are going through, and be more compassionate when people are struggling and things go wrong. That’s no substitute for the culture we had, but hopefully it will sustain us until we can all be together again.