How (and Why) to Grieve Your Pre-Pandemic Work Culture

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“I can’t wait to go back.”

Maybe you’ve said this or heard it from a colleague in the past six months. Likely, we’ve all said it at some point or another in reference to our desire to live our lives the way we did before the words delta variant and omicron became part of our daily lingo. When we talk about “going back,” it’s a general statement. We could be referencing going back to live performances and sporting events. Or maybe we mean going back into the office but not necessarily back to our cubicle. It’s nuanced but the sense of nostalgia is there. We want to go back even though we know things will never be exactly like they were in 2019.

Many organizations had a great work culture before the pandemic. Now, leaders are expecting it to “come back” much in the way some people are coming back to the office. But it’s not that easy. A shift to a hybrid work style for many organizations is changing the culture. And that leaves a lot of people grieving for the pre-pandemic work culture they loved before. So, let’s take a moment to dig into that grief so we can really define what all the great components of that fabulous culture were, and then envision its next evolution for the world we’re living in now.


The 5 Stages of Grief

In 1969, Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published On Death and Dying, where she introduced the five stages of grief after the loss of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. It’s fair to say, many of us are grieving work before Covid, so let’s take a look at these stages as they apply to work culture.


In this first stage, we tend to avoid thinking and talking about what we’re grieving. This plays out in our rush to “get back to business”. Sound familiar? Instead of sitting down and discussing how work is different now, we don’t talk about it at all. This can cause confusion for some employees who recognize differences in how work is getting done (particularly those who are now permanently remote or trying a hybrid environment for the first time). And if left unaddressed, denial can cause an underlying fear that perhaps leadership is unaware of how work has changed or worse, they don’t care.


Once we are able to move beyond denial, it’s understandable to experience frustration or even anxiety. Questions like, “What do we do now?” or “How am I supposed to manage my team when I can’t see them every day?” are expected and totally normal. For a long time, a prevalent management belief was, “If I can’t see you, you’re not working.” Now, we’re asking those same leaders of people to trust their teams, give the new work style a chance, and that’s hard. Admitting it’s tough and how we’re feeling (and dealing) in the moment is critical to finding the balance of what works and what doesn’t for individual managers and their teams.


The anger leads us to search for answers. We need to find meaning, our place within this new world we’re working in. To do this, it’s reasonable to reach out to peers in similar situations. And sometimes we can gather good advice or perspective. But we can also get trapped in trying to negotiate our way out of the situation. “If we all go back to the office, things will be like they were before.” Or we can bury ourselves in what-if statements that further aid us in our avoidance of the issue causing the grief in the first place. Sitting at our desks pondering what life would be like today if Covid never happened is a fruitless waste of time.


Needless to say, all of this change we’re experiencing can be a lot. It’s overwhelming to think about trying a hybrid (or all remote) work style—let alone the prospect of building a new culture. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization reported the Covid pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. From stress caused from the isolation of quarantine protocols to feelings of loneliness and even financial concerns, we’ve all been through a lot. Our organizations have too. Many organizations experienced a mass exodus of workers over the past two years. Partnerships have changed. Clients have cut back. Business is still “not as usual” and yet, we have to move forward.


In this last stage, we’re not saying, “It’s OK the pandemic changed how our organizations operate” but rather, “the pandemic changed how our organizations operate and we will be OK.” This is our reality. We’ve already gotten through the uncertainty, now we can begin to look forward and plan for what’s next.


Pinpoint Your Stage and Plan for Progress

Where do you fall in the five stages above? It’s OK to be reeling in the first stage. The idea is to become aware of where you are so you can plan for what’s next and how to get where you want to be. At ADVISA, we love a good “From > To” statement. I encourage you to think through this one on your own and then at your next team meeting:


“How might I move from [insert your stage of grief] to feeling excited and optimistic about the future of our work?”


Encourage your team members to share where they believe they are in their pre-pandemic work culture grief journey and take the time to talk about what you miss about work. Was it seeing everybody in the coffee room each morning? Hearing laughter down the hall? The ability to create impromptu stand-up meetings to get everyone on the same page?

Consider, of those things you and your team miss most, how might you recreate them in your new environment? Perhaps weekly coffee check-ins either virtually or at a local coffee shop can help. Or maybe monthly afternoons set aside for a team activity, where work is put on hold and connection is prioritized can fill a gap for teams. What’s important to keep in mind is there is not a recommended cadence for connection. It’s what works best for each and every team, regardless of industry or organizational size.


We can’t go back to the way things were in 2019. And maybe that’s a good thing. It gives us the space to really think about what we want, how we feel, and where to go from here. Let’s dream forward to create more engaging work and magnetic cultures that will change the force of our organizations, attract (and keep) the best talent, and see where this incredible opportunity can take us. I can’t wait to see what you’ll do.



Interesting in hearing more from ADVISA Leadership Consultant Stephanie Murphy? Read “‘2020’ Hindsight: Meeting Effectiveness”.

You may also be interested in “Be the Organization People Love, not the One People Leave” by ADVISA’s President, Heather Haas.