Exactly who is going to walk back through that door?

As I write this, the akhia team has been working from home for 337 days now. Funny. It felt longer than that. A lot longer.

And now, as companies are starting to firm up their return-to-work policies, employees are facing something they haven’t had to in the past year: themselves.

‘Return-to-work’ can mean a lot of things. Whether that means five days a week, hybrid or permanently remote the fact is, the person who walked out that door in March 2020 may not be the same person who walks back through it in 2021.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I’ve changed over the past 11 months. At first, I was reluctant to acknowledge it.

“I haven’t changed at all – I’m as constant as the North Star.”

But the fact is, I have. We all have. We all do. Science says so.

Even if you feel you haven’t changed personally, our work habits, our personal relationships, how we’ve dealt with some degree of isolation – those things have changed us.

If you could travel back in time to the day this started, for you, and ask yourself – “what version of yourself is waiting on the other side of this pandemic?” – your answer would be …

“I have no clue! I’m just trying to make it through this day!”

And that – the simple fact we really couldn’t even acknowledge that this was a transformative moment in our lives – is reason enough to stop and take stock of just how much we have changed. Consider all that has happened since then. We had no idea just how big that moment was going to be.

Shifting to just what has changed is personal, and is different, for everyone. For me it started with having a conversation with myself. After acknowledging that yes, I’ve changed, I stopped to think through exactly what those changes were.

Going beyond Zoom, working from home, new hobbies, binging and talking to the pets more frequently (I’m not the only one doing that, right?) – I like to think there are some things that have changed in me for the better. Here are a few things I came to grips with:

Basics matter. I have had more meaningful conversations and connections with people in this environment. Dispense with the pleasantries? No thanks. It can be a simple ‘how are you doing, personally?’ at the start of a meeting or conversation that can unlock something in a person’s day that maybe they haven’t been able to talk about. How long was that conversation? As long as it needed to be.

Empathy is a choice. I have debated empathy v. compassion for quite some time. I used to view “showing” empathy as insulting – how could I possibly know what someone was going through? To say I was empathetic to their situation? It was shallow. I could have compassion. But empathy?

The pandemic humbled me in that thinking. How could we not choose to be empathetic to the trying times that so many people have gone through this year, from the pandemic itself to civil discourse and persecution to seeing business owners struggle to manage when so much is out of their control? At a time when we are so disconnected, empathy might be the greatest connector we have.

Appreciate the moment. All of them. Good. Bad. Sad. Weird. I used to think that the key to balance was not getting too high, not getting too low. That’s great. But it takes away the chances we have to feel, in the moment. Did something awesome happen? Appreciate it – celebrate it. Feel good about it. Did something go wrong? Understand it. See what you can learn from it.

Don’t feel guilty about that free time. It’s a gift. No, truly. I used to disdain free time – it’s time I should be thinking about a client, the company, reading something to get smarter. But as I’ve been home, in solitude, I realize that any free time – no matter how small – is a gift. I’m free to use it to read something. Research an industry. Follow up with a friend. Speaking from my perspective, I didn’t value it. Now, if I have some free time – some time to clear my mind and unlock a thought or a perspective I wasn’t expecting – I take it.

Speaking of guilt, don’t use it as a crutch. The theme in this, for me, is awareness of change, feelings and accountability—to myself. Early in the pandemic – and really, even before that – I wouldn’t allow myself a moment to stop and consider stress or pressure. Regardless of what job, role or situation we’re in, we all have stress. But for a long time, my answer was ‘hey, all things considered, stop complaining; it can always be worse.’

Yep. It can. But just as you should appreciate that fact it doesn’t mean your stress levels should be ignored. We have built-in coping mechanisms – ignoring our stress levels denies our bodies the chance to fight them and redirect that energy.

I’ve tried to shift my stress reaction from ‘power through’ to ‘power up.’ In other words, instead of ignoring it, I acknowledge it and look for ways to draw from it.

And really, that’s the biggest lesson for me over this past year. We can’t change what has happened. But to not learn something from it – to not take away some form of growth – would be a miss.

What version of yourself is waiting on the other side of this? I think a better one.