Three questions to ask as we head into a decidedly different back-to-school season

Originally published in the Globe & Mail August 31, 2020

September can be an emotional time of year. Even for those not sending children back to school (or this year, back to classrooms), it conjures memories of heading back to school ourselves, and changes like new classrooms, new classmates, new subjects, new teachers … and the passage of time. This year, we are entering the upcoming school year with more hesitation and unknowns and hence, potentially more jitters than ever before.

In parallel, as many of us are slowly returning to offices in varying capacities, how can we use this transitional time to take stock, reflect and keep our anxieties at bay as we “go back to school?” Viewing upcoming changes as progress and learning opportunities – rather than focusing on all that is outside of our control – can make a world of difference in returning not to “normal,” but to better:

How can I optimize my “new classroom” (workspace)?

As companies continue to contemplate their post-pandemic workplace strategies, more are considering at least a partial return to office space, phased over the next few months. No doubt, corporate spaces will look different between physical distancing measures and plexiglass cladding. The way we think about “workspace” now more permanently extends to and encapsulates our home or remote workspace as well. This can be a significant change from the workplace set-ups we left behind in March. In a recent presentation in partnership with future foHRward, Ann Harten, VP of HR for Haworth, noted, “People become attached to things, spaces and adjacencies. The more value we have placed on these, the more tightly people hold onto them.” As we navigate through our repatriation to office space, whatever it looks like, keep in mind that we will experience varying emotions associated with these changes. Thinking about the increasingly broad array of workspace options as an enabler of work, as opposed to something we have or that we have lost, helps us more rationally select the space that enables us to work most productively, depending on what needs to be achieved in a given day.

How can I best work with my “new classmates” teams?

The way we work with colleagues and teams has evolved over time and has shifted significantly through this pandemic. Since we removed the physical barriers of collaborating with colleagues in different locations in favour of virtual meetings, we have been able to think more broadly and deliberately about how we define our teams. Many organizations have developed ad hoc or agile teams to achieve short-term goals (i.e. COVID-19 task forces) or accelerate longer-term objectives (i.e. digital transformation). As we go “back to school,” it is important to continue to assemble teams in an agile way, bringing together requisite skills across departments and geographies to achieve the organization’s top priorities.

How can I learn “new subjects” (skills) and how can my “new teachers” (leaders and mentors) support me?

Now is a great time to reflect on our own development – both in terms of skills we need to develop and/or acquire, and in terms of people who can help. Through this pandemic, capabilities like empathy and adaptability have taken a front seat. These and other “soft” skills (now often called “power” or “human” skills), touted as critical through the pandemic, are consistent with those identified over the past several years as necessary for a world of increasing automation. The pandemic has simply highlighted the burning need to prioritize them. The way we go about developing these skills relies less and less on a traditional training approach and more on practice, self-reflection and coaching. Identifying and engaging role models, leaders and mentors who exemplify these skills and can help with your development journey is a key part of the lifelong learning required to drive businesses forward in these increasingly uncertain times.

Back-to-school season is also a great time to start or recommit to a mindfulness practice. By focusing on the present, we eliminate noise or “busy brain,” which causes unproductive and often irrational and negative thoughts about what we “should have done” or things that “may happen.” That’s not to say that we shouldn’t learn from the past and plan for the future. However, by taking time to focus on the present, we prepare our brains as a clean slate to better process past learnings and handle future events – and perhaps even alleviate some of those back-to-school jitters.