Do you remember what you were doing a year ago, when the world changed? I remember vividly. Our team at From Day One had just returned from our conference in Atlanta, where we hosted hundreds of business leaders at the Georgia Aquarium. Everyone was far more transfixed by a whale shark swimming lazily in its tank than the invisible threat circulating in the community. Back in our hometown of Brooklyn, we were planning to depart soon for our next destination, Chicago, when we heard disturbing news about a phenomenon we had never really considered: a super-spreader event, a conference in Boston eventually responsible for more than 100 new cases of the novel coronavirus. We didn’t want that happening to us and our From Day One community, so we scrubbed our live events. That was the responsible thing to do, but it raised a painful question: for a conference company with no conferences, does this mean we’re out of business?
I’ll tell you how our story turned out in a moment, but the theme here is reinvention amid the crisis. In a pandemic year of death, suffering and economic devastation, it was also a time of transformation in the way we work, raise our kids, and think about the roles of government and business. We had no way of seeing last March 11, when the global pandemic was officially upon us, how many old ideas would be turned upside down. But lots of thoughtful people are striving to help put the pandemic year into perspective, including how we frame its place in the trajectory of our lives.
In a sense, the past year was its own time, not like what went before, or what comes next. For a recent piece in the New York Times, writer Casey Schwartz was interviewing Sherry Turkle, the renowned thinker on human-technology interaction, about her new book when the topic turned to the meaning of the pandemic year, Schwartz wrote. “In many ways, Turkle believes that the pandemic is a ‘liminal’ time, in the phrasing of the writer and anthropologist Victor Turner, a time in which we are ‘betwixt and between,’ a catastrophe with a built-in opportunity to reinvent. ‘In these liminal periods are these possibilities for change,’ she said. ‘I think we are living through a time, both in our social lives but also in how we deal with our technology, where we are willing to think of very different ways of behaving.’”
While many of our transformations have been well-documented–we learned to work from home, we absorbed a better understanding of racial and social injustice, we gained a new appreciation for mental-health care, we adopted more pets, and we learned to bake bread–some of the transformations were more subtle or unheralded. To find out more about those, we asked some of the people who’ve spoken at our events to tell us about their own experiences in their businesses and life.
Striking Out on Her Own: Myla Skinner, who has moderated several of our events and has worked for organizations including the education-advocacy group OneGoal, decided to heed the advice of a mentor and friend who advised: “What you want to do doesn't exist, so build it yourself.” So that's what she did, launching her own consulting firm. “I wanted to do work that focuses on navigating complex and consequential change with care for people at its core. I wanted to do work that leveraged my experience to support businesses as they do really big things. And I wanted to do work that puts love at the center and foundation. So I built a business to do that. It's called Quarter Five (Q5), whose name represents an extra quarter in the year to focus on the things that most matter to your business related to change. The pandemic forced me to spend real time with myself examining how I wanted to both live and work. I had to sit in the still and silence that this awful virus created. I had to dig deep to find what would bring my life joy. I recognize my privilege in having the opportunity and I'm hopeful that this work will create opportunities for others to do their best work and be their whole selves.”
Saving Young People from a Missed Opportunity: For more than two decades, the EXP internship program in Southern California has been the on-the-ground partner to schools and industries, helping young people gain experience, unlock doors to opportunity, and build confidence. During the 2019-20 school year, the program served nearly 6,350 students at ten high schools. But at the onset of the pandemic, “when those classrooms and companies shut down, we were terrified,” says Amy Grat, EXP’s CEO. “We had lost both halves of the circle that we seek to complete–youth and volunteers.” Yet in a dramatic shift, EXP’s team let go of its previous assumptions of what an internship should look like, distilled it down to the essentials, and created a virtual experience. Earlier this month, more than 350 high-school girls from across Southern California, along with nearly 100 industry professionals, logged into a virtual conference space for EXP’s fifth-annual Women in STEM career day. The pandemic crisis, says Grat, turned out to be “a huge catalyst for growth and innovation,” especially in expanding EXP’s reach.
Discovering the True Nature of a Vacation: Deep Mahajan, senior director and head of people development at the tech firm Nutanix, said the year 2020 inspired her to reinvent what vacation means to her. “Earlier it meant finding and booking a fancy location, packing our suitcases, travelling by air or by road, clicking a ton of pictures, checking off all sight-seeing places–even if it meant cramming the schedule and heading back to wrestle with Monday blues and an inbox exploding with two weeks’ worth of emails,” Mahajan said. “Today it is different. Vacation to me today can be something as simple as taking a weekly hike with a loved one to a place that was always just a few miles away but was undiscovered till now. I consider taking a mindful walk after work in the evening too as my daily ‘vacation.’ It has helped me admire the change of seasons in the color scheme of my neighborhood. It amazes me how all those trees bursting with the season’s shade and the flower gardens in my neighborhood went unnoticed all these years. Perhaps because I drove past them thinking about a million other things. Walking has changed my understanding and awareness of where I live. You know the best part? After any of the above ‘vacations,’ I never have the dull feeling of ‘going back to work.’ I do not even have to take PTO for this!”
Taking a Meeting Outside: Lisa Nichols, an SVP in HR at Citigroup, is a firm believer in being productive without having to sit at a desk for hours on end. “I think one thing that has stayed with me is trying to care for yourself and building movement into your day. One way many of our managers have accomplished this is by doing walking, one-on-one phone meetings where we are simply providing updates or reviewing strategies,” Nichols said. “It has allowed us to get a little exercise while also completing a meeting that did not require that we needed to be in front or our computer or a Zoom meeting. This has been a good way to break up the day and get some movement to clear our minds.”
Building a Matchmaking System for Jobless Workers: “As we all were sent home a year ago, the enormity of the implications on jobs started to set in. If businesses are shut down, they can only carry their employees for so long,” said Kamal Ahluwalia, president of Eightfold.ai, which produces software for talent management and acquisition. “So we did what we usually do: organized a hackathon to repurpose our technology for the citizens.” The result was the Eightfold Talent Exchange, created in partnership with McKinsey & Company, which uses artificial intelligence to match unemployed workers to jobs. Ahluwalia shares the story of a Starbucks barista in Philadelphia named Joshua, whose hours were reduced because of the pandemic. As it happened, Starbucks was offering its workers some resources like the Talent Exchange, which Joshua used to land a manager position at a local Walgreens. “There are tons of stories like that, small but meaningful,” said Ahluwalia. “Makes me appreciate what we have a lot more, and try not to take things for granted.”
Learning to Let Some Problems Solve Themselves: Rob Smith, executive editor of Seattle and Seattle Business, embraced a new time-management technique. “I found it easier to obsess around perceived issues and problems because of the inability to communicate spontaneously with colleagues. So I started writing down things I wanted to tackle, and if they weren’t major, I stuck them in a drawer and revisited them later. I initially did this every day, but then started looking at them Friday afternoons. I was pleasantly surprised that most had either resolved themselves or I had misjudged how important they really were. I will continue this new tool post-pandemic.”
Getting to Know Each Other Better Remotely: Matt Orozco, organizational change consultant for the employee-engagement platform Peakon, said his company has committed to strengthening the ties among remote employees. As an example, “We improved the use of internal comms tools (in our case, Slack) by adding fields to ‘profiles’ so we can be more inclusive and share more about ourselves. Some fields we added were pronouns, name pronunciation (we operate in five countries worldwide), and a link to a ‘ways of working’ doc so each employee can share how best to work with them.” He described it as kind of a user manual, but for human colleagues. On the personal side, he said that, “as a film student by education, I finally started to channel my passion for writing and film into a creative outlet by contributing to a film website,” as well as coming to grips with “the manufactured pressure to be more productive with respect to personal goals and side hustles during lockdowns.”
Keeping Employee Careers on Track: One of the biggest concerns among employees working remotely is that their career development suffers from being out-of-sight, out-of-mind at HQ. Larry McAlister, VP of global talent for the cloud-computing company NetApp, said the company launched a new, AI-enabled tool for setting goals and career paths. “We want everyone at NetApp to feel you can do the best work of your career from your kitchen table. We had a ‘career week’ a few months before launching the tool and we are now the vendor gold standard for adoption of the tool,” McAlister said, adding that the company keeps employee well-being in mind too: “We implemented Wellness Days, where the whole company has a day off each quarter. We have also implemented ‘No Zoom Fridays’ every month.”
Taking Control of the Calendar: Deep Mahajan, the executive who reinvented her idea of vacation, made changes in her schedule as well. “Unlike earlier, when all ‘house stuff’ used to happen strictly after and before office hours, today our schedules have become truly integrated. So you may be emptying the dishwasher between meetings and taking a meeting after office hours. It requires planning, without which it can be a mess. I re-invented the art of calendar-and-meeting management as I integrated my life into my work. Every Sunday I look at my calendar to mark the meetings that can be done walking, eliminate meetings which are redundant, add meetings for social interactions as needed, and eliminate those 30-minute ‘unproductive’ slots between meetings to be more efficient with my time. Family and house time has also come onto the calendar. Overall, I feel a better sense of control by organizing my time mindfully.”
Learning to Say No, When Possible: Erin Hicks, a senior director of HR at Applied Materials, realized that the lack of work boundaries at home was unsustainable. “For me, 12- to 14-hour days are just a norm I have learned to live with over the last four to five years,” she said, attributing the trend to “increased responsibilities, while there are still only 24 hours in a day, and something in my DNA that requires me to never let anyone down. This past year began with the same unhealthy pattern. That is, until I came to the personal realization that that kind of ‘work ethic’ was not only unhealthy, but it was depriving me of valuable time with my family that I could never get back. So I have worked hard to reinvent the way I work. I stop working when my teenager comes to check in with me on a school break, or when my husband comes in to do the same. The payoff is a lot more laughter during my day. I have reinvented my approach by modulating the work I agree to take on–and setting realistic expectations.”
Hicks added a broader observation on the issue: “From a work-culture perspective, I have really enjoyed seeing managers spending more time thinking about their employees’ physical and emotional well-being. The empathy factor has gone up exponentially. Teams have reinvented the way they interact, and not just from the use of new online collaboration tools. Leaders are finding myriad ways to bring their groups together on a human, social level that has been fun to watch. This forced reinvention of how teams interact as co-workers–and as people–in a virtual world will have a lasting positive impact, regardless of that the new normal or future of work looks like.”
Testing the Limits of Personal Handiwork: Like many remote workers, Mikeisha Anderson Jones, VP of global inclusion & diversity in the Colleague Experience Group at American Express, decided to do some redecorating. “In addition to adjusting to the new ways of working from home, I also fancied myself a weekend and late-night creative by endeavoring to wallpaper my office. Clearly, I’d spent insufficient hours watching the experts on Property Brothers and Love It or List It. When I started on my wallpapering journey, I hadn’t realized that I’d see my handiwork daily for the next 365+ days via videoconference. Thankfully, I love the print and despite my novice-level wallpapering skills, the result is quite lovely. I also learned something about myself: I will never, ever wallpaper another room by myself.”
While some of us may feel like this was a lost year, that might not be true in the long run. In a piece for Time, author and editor Joanne Lipman shared the wisdom of dozens of experts she has consulted for a book she’s writing on reinvention. “The types of transformations they study vary. Yet I’ve been struck by the one step that every type of reinvention has in common: it’s preceded by an in-between time, a seemingly fallow period much like the one we find ourselves in now,” Lipman writes. “The prolonged shutdown, by throwing us off-kilter, may help us reimagine our futures,” Lipman continues, citing the work of a psychologist who has studied survivors of trauma. After time, these survivors tend to “have a sense of fresh possibilities in life, an openness to following new pathways.”
In the midst of all this reinvention, one of our speakers offers a reality check. Daniel Roberts, who did some of his own reinvention recently–he left his job as editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance to become editor-in-chief of the crypto-news site Decrypt–predicts that some workplace transformations will revert to the old ways because they had obvious benefits. “We've all certainly adapted for a year and in many cases I think some workplaces have been shocked to learn how well WFH worked. The news media, I believe, rose to the occasion of covering every aspect of the pandemic–from home or in a mask–and has been extremely resilient,” he said. But don’t assume work-from-home will be for everyone, forever, he said. “I think there are a number of companies that see advantages to having their people in person, and are going to tell people when the coast is clear, OK, come back now. I fear some people will be in for a rude awakening when that happens.” As for journalism, he said, “I am a big believer in the power of the newsroom, and in being able to bat around ideas in person in a lively room with your colleagues.”
Finally, what about the From Day One team? On the personal front, two of our families reinvented themselves by having their first children. Babies can certainly be transformative. As for me, I took up yoga, faithfully attending my niece’s classes twice a week.
And as you might have been expecting by now, From Day One reinvented itself. Considering the alternatives, we were left with one possible way to survive: We would go all-virtual. Three weeks after making that decision in March, we produced our first webinar, titled “Smart Ways to Manage a Newly Remote Work Team.” Since then, we have hosted nearly 60 webinars and virtual conferences. Thanks to the intrepid spirit of our speakers, sponsors, audience members, and our extraordinary staff, we are still very much in business–just not the way we were before. The experience has broadened our reach and taught us how to think outside the conference room. But we look forward to seeing you again in person just as soon as we can.
Steve Koepp is a co-founder of From Day One. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time