Why 2021 is Your Reset Year
If the past year has taught us anything, predicting is a fraught exercise. We stumbled out of 2020 shellshocked and hopeful, only to find that 2021 still has untold adventures in store for us. Still, there’s a sense of progression, as humans are determined to look forward. Businesses are starting to gingerly plan, and markets are exuberantly supporting them. People are even booking vacations again, though with solid cancellation clauses to be safe.
As a coach, I get glimpses into a wide range of organizations, their cultures and their workers. It’s an anthropology study of sorts, as I witness how companies are positioning themselves, and interact with employees about how they are adjusting to those expectations. One theme I’m hearing consistently is that while companies want to diligently push back toward normal, employees aren’t so sure. The relationship between work and self has fundamentally shifted. Workers are questioning just about everything, taking a determined pause to ask: Why was I doing that?
2021 is shaping up to be a reset year.
Now, this may not be outwardly discussed as people stoically show up as good stewards in their marathon Zoom offsites and express optimism about going back to the office. But it’s a raging debate for many, many people personally.
According to Pew Research, 86% of Americans believe the pandemic has lessons for humankind. And while change will play out on a societal scale in ways we can’t yet guess, there are many personal decisions that are beginning to coalesce around common themes. To be clear, this isn’t a future of work story: plenty of prognostications about that. Instead, it’s about how workers are processing this moment. Here are questions I’m hearing – see if they resonate for you.
1) Why would I ever go back to traveling so much?
This is the most common sentiment I hear from clients: they never want to go back to the same level of pre-pandemic travel. It doesn’t mean that they want to eschew all travel; after all, some in-person meetings are definitely missed. But overall, the knee-jerk approach to get on a plane has been revealed to be a time-waster when video is a decent replacement. As an aside, I’ve noticed revelations about ego creeping into these conversations. It seemed “important” to jet off for business, and now the hollowness of that has been revealed. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
2) What if I traded some achievement for more fulfillment?
In one recent conversation, a successful executive recounted how she has dutifully climbed the corporate ladder with little thought to achieving the next rung. She was good at achieving and she did. With the chance to slow down, she realizes that being at the top of the hierarchy is financially rewarding but personally draining. She misses being in the thick of the workstream versus managing from above, and her current industry doesn’t match her values. I’ve heard many variations of this theme. With the benefit of space and time to think, people are reflecting on what gives them meaning and a sense of purpose. Achievement may provide that, but if it doesn’t, workers are actively questioning the path they’ve previously just accepted.
3) How can I preserve more time with family?
There have been many popular jokes about the amount of forced family time we’ve endured. For a majority, it’s the most continuous time they’ve spent with their immediate families in their entire lives. While it’s had its challenges, there have also been rewards: more meals together, deeper conversations, and a front-row seat into each other’s lives. Many people have relished this closeness, and don’t want a complete fallback to a schedule that takes it away.
4) How can I maintain flexibility for better life satisfaction?
When people started working from home, after the initial shock wore off, they fell into a frenzied pattern of overwork. It required more effort to learn new ways of connecting and producing. Workloads increased with uncertainty. Without natural breakpoints like commutes or walks to lunch, the day quickly became endless Zoom meetings with even longer working hours. At some point, most jobs right-sized to a more sustainable norm. We realized what was necessary and what wasn’t. Most importantly, people learned how helpful flexibility was to life satisfaction.
Workplaces became forgiving of informality and life circumstances – being caught on video in a T-shirt with a toddler on your lap was cute, not career-impacting. People liked being able to take a break in the middle of the day to work out or run an errand. They learned that scheduling thinking work where and when they had the most energy was time-efficient and productive. In short, having control over their time has been life-changing in ways most professionals hadn’t before understood. As one colleague recently quipped, “What am I going to do when I have to show up for face time again?” Now that they know what flexibility provides, people are contemplating how to preserve it.
5) What if less is more?
The pandemic has taken away the volume of our lives as we’ve had to settle for less of just about everything: experiences, travel, friends, work opportunities. Everyone is hungry for normalcy again. And yet, I also hear people contemplating whether or not they needed as much as they thought they did to be happy. On a population level, we’ve pared down our lives to what’s most important, and prioritized the heck out of that. There are aspects of life we miss and want to increase at the first opportunity, and others that may go by the wayside. People are trying to delineate what they truly need to be fulfilled, and contemplating how they might make permanent changes. If you could have more of what you need, would you sacrifice some of what you thought you wanted? Turns out, maybe.
As I write this in the first months of 2021, these themes represent a snapshot in time. I’m curious to see how these desires translate into realities. Of course, we have no way of knowing how people’s feelings will change from here. If history is a guide, the roaring 20s may well repeat. Or we may have matured into our own time, with its own unique waters to swim in. Right now, we’re still standing on the riverbank, considering the question of how we want to jump back into a current that was strong and swift. With this reset, we have a bit of time to figure it out, though how much time is still anyone’s guess.
This article also appears on Forbes.com.
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