A table of people pondering a question

It Starts with a Question

April 20, 2021
How have the experiences of the past year influenced the way we work and our professional relationships?

As we poke our heads out into the partly sunny, vaccinated world of the post-pandemic era, there is an itch to get back to whatever normal now looks like. For many of us, that largely revolves around once again seeing people in three dimensions. We will be re-establishing, carefully, our face-to-face (and for a while yet, mask-to-mask) relationships.

Once that is done, we should spend some time contemplating the answer to one fundamental question that will guide us in our path forward:

What did we learn?

I won’t attempt to answer that in the larger geopolitical sense. Confining ourselves to our business at hand, what did we learn about our professional work and our professional colleagues? Despite the COVID surges and the economic challenges that ensued, we have emerged from all of this changed, and yet still remarkably the same in many ways.

One thing is for sure—we are more resilient that we might have expected. With an attitude that focused on solving our problems, we created new ways of doing our jobs, and developed new channels to get to the materials we needed to complete our jobs.

We relied on digital technology—not as a fad or a test, but as the way forward in our businesses. We understood the power of digital manufacturing and of sensors and robots. The Digital Transformation—a topic Machine Design will discuss in more detail this summer—took hold in the last 14 months and showed us new things about our work, and our workforce, than we might have suspected.

We innovated out of necessity, and with innovation we found the capacity to change as rapidly as needed to meet the immediate challenge. It’s only now that we can step back and observe that rate of change that we can truly appreciate how much change has occurred, both in our systems and in ourselves.

Not everything worked, of course, and among those things that we learned is what to keep amid all of that change, and what ideas we can discard. Still, the timeline for trial and error what much shorter than if we had time to ponder such change.

We learned to trust our instincts, and our people. We found in our workforce a resilient spirit and a steely dedication to overcoming the obstacles. Not everything was within our control, but I marveled throughout this time at all that we actually did accomplish and all that we were able to preserve and even improve.

It is too hopeful to say that we profited from this shared global experience. Too many walls and barriers remain. But in our plants and our teams, we did our best to meet and exceed the individual challenges we faced each day, and that is something we can be immensely proud of.

But those are my answers to the question. Every organization should take the past year as a chance to see where we can find success and value for the future or our work. At every inflection point of change in our history we have seen our teams take a deep breath and get on with the business at hand. In change we find a fresh perspective, an incentive to grow and to get better at what we do.

What did we learn? Certainly more than we wanted to. But that lesson also begs one further question: What’s next?

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