COVID and the gift of organizational change

May 23, 2021

People have adapted to new ways of working and living, and in the process discovered new ways of thinking.

The words “COVID” and “gift” don’t automatically appear in the same sentence. In fact, they don’t coincide at all. The unexpected arrival in March 2020 of a virulent germ that leapt from host to host transformed everyone’s lives, sending workers in nonessential functions home to a life of remote work, Zoom boxes, and juggling multi-generational family care. We didn’t anticipate or plan for these changes, but rather were forced to alter our behavior to cope with the magnitude and severity of the pandemic.

More than a year later, people have adapted to new ways of working and living. They also have discovered new ways of thinking. Therein lies the unexpected “gift” of the pandemic.

Organizational evolution. The CEO of an engineering and manufacturing company encountered such new thinking among his senior executives. They had weathered COVID relatively well with few cases of the virus among their workers and kept the production lines running safely across many geographies. That was worth celebrating. However, their success came with an unanticipated consequence.

A year after the pandemic arrived, almost all his general managers said the “R” word out loud. Before COVID, they considered themselves lifers, arriving at work each day with little thought about retirement. Then came the pandemic. While they remained committed to the company business, they realized during their constricted COVID lives that there was more to living than work. It led to thoughts of an exit plan, a major change for them and the company.

Their situation is not unique. COVID has caused many people to take a serious look at their lives and careers. For companies, it raises organizational issues and opportunities.

The organizational issues. Before the pandemic, three organizational issues unintentionally discouraged thinking about future career paths:

  1. Team player culture. Culture within an organization determines what is said and not said. It grows over time as people tailor their behavior to what they see around them. AEC firms tend to have a heads-down culture that burrows into the work of converting business visions into thoughtful designs and zillions of details. The workstyle reinforces a team player persona where project deliverables outweigh individual concerns. Thoughts on one’s individual career trajectory arise during annual reviews and organizational crises. Otherwise, people remain consumed with project work. Senior leaders occupy their time getting work in and out the door and making sure the firm maintains profitability. They devote little time to choreographing a satisfying, sustainable career, sending a similar signal to their organizations.
  2. Inauthentic communication. When people have a hard time sharing their honest opinions, new ideas suffer. It’s easier to get along and blend into a team culture that favors conformity over unique points of view. What gets lost are insights that challenge the status quo and promote invention. Personal histories can contribute to withholding of ideas, particularly if a company errs toward group think rather than risk-taking in communication. People who grew up in households where to avoid negative consequences they learned to say yes no matter what they really believe are particularly affected. When they carry that behavior into their adult lives, both they and their organizations lose important feedback and ingenuity.
  3. Conflict avoidance. Conflict avoidance is a pervasive problem. When faced with the prospect of opposition to an idea, it feels safer to say nothing. Unfortunately, silence perpetuates the problem and thwarts fresh thinking. Discussing a significant turn in one’s career path with one’s manager might feel particularly uncomfortable and risky, because it’s so personal. Not having the conversation, however, can lead to lower productivity, burnout, or an unplanned retirement.

The organizational opportunities. With the heightened awareness of the desire for different career paths, companies have an opportunity to avoid negative consequences of pre-pandemic patterns. Below are three steps:

  1. Change the frame. When the CEO realized that his GMs were contemplating personal exit strategies, he decided to change the frame. Instead of protecting the conforming, team player culture, he seized the moment to look beyond the daily grind of work production to a broader picture that supported his senior team to do their best work in a sustainable way. A company culture of heads-down, constant production with customer delivery heroics might work short-term. However, eventually human capacity hits the wall. Therefore, the CEO needed to call a halt to the unhealthy pattern and reset the organizational mindset to include career health.
  2. Change the conversation. Changing the frame begins with changing the conversation. The leader sets the culture and can establish a new approach to communication norms. In the COVID era, it is especially important to honor the feelings of employees at every level of the organization. Saying out loud that the pandemic brought intense emotional challenges is important. Not only does it validate the feelings of the workforce, but it also happens to be true. The CEO recognized that continuing to push out product without considering the human toll risked loss of key talent. Instead of focusing on KPIs, he began a new conversation. He invited his GMs to talk about their long-term career thinking in the context of the business and their personal lives. What did they need to motivate and energize them? He also encouraged them to consider alternatives to the traditional career route. By inviting the GMs to talk about learning that work was not everything, the CEO gave them permission to view work in a more holistic way and still be seen as a valuable contributor.
  3. Change the plan. To address what the GMs discovered during the pandemic, retirement might be the answer for some. For others, focusing on retooling their work style to allow for fewer heroics, more delegation and institutionally sanctioned breaks can increase employee engagement and longevity. When the CEO cracked open the conversation to consider broader alternatives, several ideas emerged to revitalize careers:
    1. Sabbaticals or leaves of absence to break the steady beat of daily work.
    2. Integration of work/life balance into the performance evaluation process.
    3. Implementation of an official succession process, with an organizational commitment to developing emerging talent and a timeline for transfer of leadership responsibilities.

No doubt, it would have been better if the pandemic never happened. However, given our lack of choice on the matter, we can leverage its challenges to capture what we have learned about change and make it work to our benefit.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 18 years has coached, taught and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the scariness of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is author of the award-winning The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. Her workbook, The Journal of Not Knowing, provides a self-guided discovery mission to navigate the adventure of pursuing one’s dreams based on the Journey principles. She can be reached at

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