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Where do we go from here?

Ami Valdemoro (Harvard MPP), CAL Teaching Faculty, Social Entrepreneur and Leadership Coach 

This article was originally published in The Manila Times.

LET’s start with some facts:

We are more than 15 months into this pandemic.

We can see glimmers of light piercing through the dark end of a long tunnel.

Vaccines are being rolled out, with more on the way.

Case numbers are slowly decreasing. As more people get inoculated, cases of hospitalization and death will go down.

Around the world, where more than 50 percent of the adult population has been vaccinated, some countries have already started a new chapter in their story.

Here’s what we also know:

We are not at the end yet. Not even close. The biggest of optimists would say we’re halfway through.

Suddenly, or finally, we can start to poke our heads out from our turtle shells, but what kind of world are we emerging into?

Many are giddy with excitement at the possibility of returning “back to normal.” It feels like hope mixed with a tinge of desperation.

People speak of “revenge travel” and “revenge parties.” A new vocabulary has emerged beyond a “new normal,” with language that signals that we were robbed of opportunities and experiences that we need to take back.

On the other hand, some are nervous about entering into a world that goes back to the same old pre-2020 ways. Familiar terms like “burnout” have been replaced by “languishing,” where we are just muddling through with a sense of “blah.”

We know intuitively that some things in that “normal” didn’t work – maladaptive behaviors that failed to capitalize on the talents, skills and intelligence of those around us. Maybe we didn’t have the tools or the data to show why change was necessary at the time.

If we are lucky, the past 15 months have gifted us time and space to think about how to integrate new ways of doing, thinking and being.

Chances are, however, that we’ve spent some of that time just trying to stay afloat.

Each of us have experienced loss in the past 15 months. Loss of health. Loss of jobs. Loss of life. Deep losses that we are only starting to come to terms with.

In our euphoria and impatience to step back into the light, we may forget how important it is to grieve.

We need time and space to process, well, everything. As the place where many people spend much of their waking hours and energy, companies and businesses will bear some of this responsibility.

We can never go back to the way things were before 2020. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It comes down to framing.

Workplace politics, mobility, affording basic needs – these issues didn’t just come about as a result of the pandemic. That’s not even mentioning the huge challenges presented by climate change, access to education and other development challenges; they may have been magnified by our new circumstances, but they were always there.

Going back to “normal” won’t fix these underlying problems.

There’s a sense of comfort in going back to the way things were, a desire to stay in a physical or psychological place where we feel control, safety, and security. The question is: Is this the best alternative? Is this how we will grow, learn and adapt?

Nostalgia – like fear – can stop us from integrating adaptive behaviors that can create the “new normal” we seek.

How might we refashion ourselves so that we can make a new normal that’s not simply “not 2020,” but better? How might leaders of business and industry engage our teams and communities in this work?

1. Give space and permission to acknowledge and honor what’s been lost. Empathy doesn’t stop when the pandemic does (whenever that may be.) That includes empathy for yourself. You can’t fill from an empty cup. Remember to breathe, reset and realign.

2. Don’t get attached to past ways of doing things if they don’t serve your current or future reality. Trust your intuition here. You know when your software needs upgrading. What are you trying to accomplish? If the goal goes beyond the bottom line and requires behavior change, be open to the messiness of co-creating new norms and welcome the insights that that process can generate.

3. Look in your rear view and side mirrors – always anticipate. Just because you’ve figured out how to get through this doesn’t mean there isn’t something else around the corner. People look to you for direction, so it will serve you to have a clear sense of the road ahead.

These suggestions may seem like a huge thing to ask, especially after what we’ve gone through, but adapting isn’t about becoming some completely unrecognizable version of ourselves. It’s figuring out what’s essential to our identity; letting go of the practices that no longer serve us; and tweaking some behaviors so that we can embrace new ways of surviving and – dare I say it? – thriving.

Ami Valdemoro is the founder of Three Points Ventures, a coaching practice where she works with executives, leaders and entrepreneurs on customized strategies to achieve their personal and professional goals and reach their next stage of growth. She earned her master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2013.