Celebrate the present, and focus on extreme flexibility and radical empathy going forward.
There’s never been a more important time for celebration than now. Scientific evidence has proven that celebrating brings the mind, body, and spirit into harmony, releasing endorphins that make you feel good. In this chaotic time, anything we can do to achieve harmony is critical. In this issue of The Zweig Letter, we honor and celebrate the 2020 award winners, which provides us with such an opportunity. This has become an annual tradition we’ve enjoyed for more than 20 years and over this span of time, the awards have evolved as have the firms.
Two years ago, we decided to accelerate this evolution when we unveiled our “Elevate The Industry” mission. As part of our pursuit of elevation, we decided to incrementally increase the difficulty in achieving award status each year. This is called raising the reference standard. If we are to elevate the industry, then we must work harder every year to reach an increasing definition of excellence. We believe this is important as ideally it will drive innovation and evolution at a faster pace. It’s a great idea when the system we are trying to evolve stays intact, however, our system blew up almost overnight in mid-March. We quickly realized the fragility of our lifestyles and how reliant we are on schools, food supplies, and the ability to gather (oh yeah, and toilet paper). This major disruption continues.
Where do we go from here? Certainly, we must celebrate our awards and in large fashion. This year, we can’t pack 400 people in a ballroom with music, light shows, smoke machines, and the flash of cameras as winners receive their awards on stage, but we must celebrate with our people in new ways. And the more we can celebrate and focus on the good things about our firms, the more harmony we can bring to chaos.
So while living in the now and celebrating our awards is important, we must also look at the year ahead and how a longer-term COVID world affects awards. How we measure excellence is being radically redefined, and there is likely a shakeup still coming that every firm will feel. Although most of Zweig Group’s 2020 award programs were judging data that was largely from 2019 and before, there was one awards program that was collecting large amounts of data before and after COVID hit, the national Best Firms To Work For contest. Collecting more than a thousand data points per day, this program had the most dramatic shift after COVID started. Like a sonic boom, most employees of AEC firms were working from home with only days to prepare, and the data showed it. And as quickly, the reigning year-after-year champion of AEC staff challenges –“communication” – was replaced by “distractions,” which was not even on the spectrum in prior years. So as you look at the year ahead, you should be thinking about what new things you need to implement and measure in order to be able to celebrate next year, because a lot is changing. What makes a firm a great place to work, what effective marketing looks like, what drives growth is all going to be impacted as this illness affects our lives longer-term.
So what can you do to keep driving excellence in your firm while quickly adapting to internal and external conditions that are changing due to COVID? Consider there is one common driver in every award: Your people. They drive growth, define culture, create marketing excellence, and the list goes on. Start now, and think big – really big – about how you can evolve the employee experience at your firm. Beyond the changes that are being forced by COVID, what can you do now to take a quantum leap in the employee experience?
To guide your decisions, I’m challenging you as a leader to develop dramatic and extraordinary empathy for every person in your company. COVID brought down the house of cards and exposed the fragility of our system, putting tremendous pressure on people in a variety of ways. Now there is wide disparity in how individuals and family units are coping with all these new pressures, most of which are a result of trying to protect physical health. All the while, the toll on mental and emotional health is mounting. If you are not concerned about the well-being of your people, you should be. The way our awards data was trending post-COVID gave us concern, and continues to with difficulties growing as we approach the half year mark of this illness. Shooting to the top list of challenges for employees is distractions, work-life balance, and loneliness. Add to this the pressures that caregivers are facing as the uncertainty around schools will put additional pressure on the issues listed above, and the firm overall. With recruiting and retention still being the number one challenge firms face, losing valuable people because of work-life complications will be a costly tragedy.
If it seems like I’m sounding the alarm, it’s because I am. Per the data, our industry was already struggling with employee burnout and the ability to appropriately staff projects before COVID. Losing additional workforce will make an industry crisis even worse. And while we were making some progress with diversity initiatives, especially in regards to gender equity, the months ahead could send us back decades if we don’t figure out a way to radically adapt our businesses to deal with a work-life balance cataclysm that will eclipse the first round in the spring. Embracing extreme flexibility now will put you ahead in the coming months. It’s time for radical empathy.
As we proudly put our 2020 awards on the shelf and look at taking our award status to the next level in 2021, get radical in your thinking. We must quickly decide what is important and get to work on a structure that can deal with all the uncertainty ahead. As our lives and profession continue to become intertwined like never before, award winning firms will be made up of heroes at home, not just at work. What does an award-winning firm look like after a full year of COVID? I can’t fully answer that, but it will certainly be one that focuses on its people in extraordinary ways. For now, celebrate like crazy, envision a celebration a year from now, and get to work building the structure to make that happen. Congrats to all the 2020 award winners. It will certainly be a year to remember!
Chad Clinehens is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.