The echo effect

I was back at my office yesterday, as I have been about a day a week for the past few months, and I noticed something interesting.

In the initial phase of my company’s voluntary return to office there were circular stickers on the floor reminding folks to stay six feet apart in the hallways. Though the stickers have now been removed, the ghost of them (in the form of a glossy spot on the concrete) remains. It seemed an apt metaphor for what happens in the aftermath of bad experiences.

Like most people, my first return to office trip made me feel a little anxious. I had lots of questions: Will it be safe? Will it look the same? Who else will be there and am I okay with being around people outside my pod? Surely I’m not taking the bus, so how will I get there? What will I do about lunch since most places are still closed? Do my hard pants still fit? Do I really need the hard shoes too?

I had a good first day back experience, had a couple of lovely interactions with colleagues I hadn’t seen in 3D in almost two years, and got some things done. I’ve not only been back to the office several more times, I’ve even ridden public transportation to get there. (It was way less stressful than I imagined.) Yet there are things that happened during “COVID times” that I plan to carry forward into the “after times”, such as working from home a little more often than I had previously and making time daily for self-care. There are also things I will carry forward, such as flinching when people cough around me and carrying hand sanitizer in my briefcase.

My COVID experience got me thinking about the importance of good references. The 15 months I spent adjusting to life during pandemic is not far off from the typical construction cycle for a new office or building. While we typically start a build eager for the process rather than dreading it, there are inevitable adjustments, pitfalls and accommodations to be made along the way, and inevitable fatigue and frustration that ebbs and flows as the project progresses. By the end, a firm either ends up with a good reference to share with future clients, or negative one to be either repaired or skirted.

Bottom line is, there’s an echo effect from any protracted experience during which uncertainty is to be expected and risks must be calculated and addressed. How we help our clients and our colleagues navigate through “rough seas” determines whether that afterglow will be good or bad.

Because I understand echo effect, I regularly remind my billable staff that they play a crucial role in marketing and business development by doing excellent work and keeping clients happy. I remind my principals/owners not to take on projects they don’t truly believe they can do well, and to staff a project carefully when they want to stretch. I also remind my firm of the costs to long term business development of keeping poor performing staff or leaders with unusually poor people skills. As long as watershed experiences are going to have an echo effect, let’s ensure it’s a good one.

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