A Deloitte professional – Alejandra – reached out to her leader – Erin – to discuss her personal experiences in the current environment. Ale reflects on her experiences with uncertainty and unrest, and what she has learned over the course of the past few months. In response, Erin transparently shared similarities in her personal experiences and offered insight on ways to thrive amidst disruption. They have summarized their conversations in the illustrative format of the open letter below.
Letter from a Professional in a Pandemic
I am writing to you hoping to open a dialogue.
Over three months ago, I began my morning routine like I normally would. I listened to my daily news podcast, grabbed my to-go coffee mug, and headed towards the 7ave station to catch the B train into Manhattan. As I waited on the busy platform, I read an email from a colleague letting me know her Acela train from D.C. was set to arrive on time for our in-person meeting in the afternoon, while another colleague was set to fly in from the west coast. A “typical” Consultant Monday.
Fast forward to today, you can imagine that my mornings look very different. No longer news, the pandemic has turned our traditional ways of working upside down. We’ve been in lockdown for months now and even as some restrictions are lifting, what that means for our work lives is still largely uncertain.
As I’ve reflected on the impact of all of this for myself, I realized just how profound it is. We know the obvious—our workplaces are now more confined, isolated from coworkers, and primarily driven by technology. What I think is less obvious, however, are the changes in expectations that I – and the broader workforce – have had to quickly address and adapt to. I wanted to share some of what this has meant for me. Specifically, I have had to unleash, or better yet, accelerate three personal capabilities:
- My creativity | My team was asked to turn an in-person client workshop into a virtual one within the span of a few short days. Traditionally, working sessions require a significant amount of ideation, brainstorming, and innovation. A virtual working session, however, only increased my and my team’s ingenuity. We explored AR/VR headsets, designed digital sticky notes, created virtual break out room activities, and found new ways to feel connected, while apart.
- My ability to cope with uncertainty | In the past, I was used to reviewing and following my team’s weekly, if not monthly or quarterly plan. Given current circumstances, our team’s plans have been continuously redirected. I recognize that I must be comfortable with the uncomfortable; I must confront situations and make decisions week by week, day by day, hour by hour if need be.
- My ability to balance my energy | Becoming more creative and dealing with uncertainty requires energy. That energy continues to be drained and tested given the increase of at-home responsibilities, news of the pandemic, stress of knowing my mother and aunt are at work as essential workers, and the systemic injustices around the country, particularly against the Black community. I have felt that my energy is “out of whack”. More than before, I have had to instill well-being breaks (e.g., short meditation sessions, quick midday walks) and personal coping mechanisms (e.g., home office plants, virtual coffee chats with colleagues). Frankly, this works for me only some days. I cannot even begin to fathom how my fellow black friends, colleagues, and leaders feel in this moment.
As I reflect on how my mornings have evolved since the start of this pandemic, I recognize that the expectations I have about myself have changed as both a working professional and aspiring organizational leader. With that in mind, I welcome any thoughts or advice you may have for me and others.
Sincerely and loyally,
A professional in a pandemic
Thank you for sharing your experiences with me. So much has happened – and is still happening – and I agree, more dialogue is needed to talk about how this is impacting each of us and our workforce more broadly. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share some of the personal reflection your letter prompted for me.
I am also grappling with the sudden changes in my personal and professional day-to-day. Just the simple reflection on the change in my morning routine. No more rushing around to get the kids out the door to school, grab a ride-share to the airport or, if travelling, catch them for a quick video chat before they leave for school. Now I get up much earlier than they do – or than I used to – so I can get a jump-start on my workday, prepare breakfast, and get my kids launched in their schoolwork for the day. All before 9 am.
Like you, I’ve found myself reflecting not only on what has been hard about our new reality but also what I can learn from this experience. My days of videoconferences are punctuated by frequent little visitors in my home office – looking for help or just a hug. I’ve found that these little interruptions have helped to build connection with my teams. I’m meeting their kids and their pets; I’m seeing the art they hang on their walls. There is power in this new layer of connection, and I am anxious not to lose it. It is especially important as we seek to learn, listen, and do better for our Black colleagues. I’ve been humbled to learn and have my eyes opened to just how far we still must go. Fostering deeper connections and a sense of true belonging for everyone is at the heart of our journey to do better; to be better. We have work to do.
You should also know that I am humbled and grateful for your willingness to use your voice and share your experiences with me. I recognize, that by virtue of my responsibilities in the organization, my decisions influence your reality. My role is to be intentional in my choices with an eye toward creating the environment in which you are at your best and can fully learn and grow. And this isn’t just about you thriving – or our other rising leaders – it’s also about our business.
So, let’s take this time to reflect and develop ourselves. Below I highlight a few of those learning moments that I perceive:
- This moment and your efforts are helping grow your career | It sounds like you and your team were able to successfully activate an incredible amount of creativity in a short period of time. As our research has continuously shown, creativity is an enduring human capability that workers increasingly need to cultivate in order to thrive. You are learning in the flow of your work, developing this essential skill for yourself and those around you.
- You are cultivating your resilience as a leader, but don’t do it alone | I read recently that resilience, like wisdom, isn’t given or developed, it is earned. And we earn it by hardship. I think where some may see the uncertainty of this moment as an obstacle, we can also choose to see it as a growth opportunity. The difference is in how we choose to see it. Resilience means you’re able to productively navigate the unexpected and to lead others to learn and grow in the face of uncertainty. Choose to see this time in this way and to recognize that you aren’t doing it alone. We need each other and being resilient sometimes means asking for help.
- Consider the diversity in your team – and unplug – to balance and renew your energy | At the end of the day, these are the two fundamental things we’re working with (or against) as we navigate our lives: time and energy. And while it can seem that both are finite and unrelenting, only one of them is. Time never stops, and will always be unrelenting; the other is fully renewable, we just don’t always do what is needed. We’re all learning – many of the things we take for granted that are energy renewing aren’t there, so we are forced to be intentional and deliberate to find new ones. And, yet some days it isn’t enough. Some days are just too much and the overwhelm comes fierce and unexpected. As I said above – we need each other. Other people give us energy, but there are ways we can be more deliberate to leverage the diversity of our teams to balance the energy we need in our work. Determine who is not just capable but energized by different aspects of the work and execute in accordance with the collective’s (or individual’s) working style.
Secondly, we can better learn to unplug and take care of ourselves. The well-being breaks and coping mechanisms you mention must become more foundational and hygienic than a Band-Aid that is applied when needed. Build these things – maybe not all, but some – into your daily rituals and routines. Establish patterns and boundaries around them that are non-negotiable. This job – like many jobs – will take every ounce of the time and energy you make available to it; hold space for you and don’t apologize for it.
I will stop there, for now. I am excited to keep this discussion going – my calendar is open, and I invite you to find time for a 1:1 if you’d like. And, I would also love any ideas you have for us to open this discussion with others – I’ve benefited so much from the reflection you’ve prompted, and I am sure others will as well.
Always in your corner,
A leader in a pandemic
Erin Clark is a Managing Director in Deloitte Consulting LLP and is a leader in Deloitte’s Learning & Leadership Consulting practice in North America.
Alejandra Arrué is a senior consultant in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Learning & Leadership Consulting practice.