the corner office

Stop the panic

Creativity and self-care will get you over the next bump in this roller coaster

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If you’ve made it this far in the pandemic, the good news is that business is probably solid, at least in comparison to last year. Getting here took a lot of creativity: remixing products, adapting to digital tools and constantly updating for market trends. And I wish I could say that as a reward for all that hard work, it’s smooth sailing from here on in.

Unfortunately, I cannot.

I know that most of us are tired of the “wait and see” approach. We had a lot of it last year when none of us were sure how long COVID disruptions would last. Then with vaccines, we were finally on the way out — until the development of the delta variant and a resurgence in vaccine skepticism. So now, like it or not, we’re still on that roller coaster, which means accounting for the new problems we’re facing, like the Great Resignation.

If you’re feeling the strain of more than 18 months of a pandemic, you’re not alone. The overwhelming message I’m getting from my business contacts is, “I’m tired.” Nobody likes to feel like they’re trying to build a foundation on sand. But the good news is there are still positive steps that you can take, and there’s (hopefully) space to catch your breath along the way.

Last year, I shared my experience with two partners who owned a very successful fitness studio together. (See E&P July 2020) Before the pandemic, they’d just opened a second location to accommodate the demand. Then in March of 2020, everything stopped dead in its tracks, and they had to pivot in some significant ways. That probably sounds familiar, so I wanted to share where they are now and what the immediate future looks like for them.

Like anyone else, they’ve been riding the waves. The release of the COVID vaccines meant a huge boost in memberships, and the delta variant meant an equally substantial slow down. At the worst of it, their membership was down by over 50 percent. And, like a media company, there’s a certain threshold where you go from “getting by” to “considerable profit,” and they were living well below that line.

But they’re still hanging in there. Generously, they estimate that their membership is now at about 70 percent of what it was before. And that’s not an accident — that’s after exhausting forays into marketing, advertising, new offerings, and every other strategy and trick that they could get their hands on. But they’re burnt out. It’s a debilitating amount of work, and they just aren’t making enough to justify all the extra hassle.

And yet, like all of us, they have to soldier on. Things are improving, even if not by as much as they’d like, and the only thing to do is to keep up the good fight.

To that end, I’d like to take a departure from my usual musings about strategy and efficiency and instead implore you to please, if it’s at all possible, take a break. And to the corporate overlords reading this, please look the other way, because honest to God, your operators need a breather.

Hard work has always been tiring, but do you know what drains a person even more than effort? Panic. And since March of 2020, panic has been at least as present as COVID itself. Even now, as airlines surge back and forth between overstaffed with no flights to canceling flights due to staff shortages, there’s not much certainty to be found around us.

My advice is to tell yourself and your team that it’s okay to let off the gas a little, even just for a little while. I don’t know what that means for you — maybe it’s an afternoon off, perhaps it’s taking a partner or friend to the spa for a weekend (assuming you can find one with staff), or maybe it’s just turning off the news and taking a long weekend.

The “how” is unimportant; what matters is that you remember to come up for air. And if you’re a leader, it means permitting your people to do the same. Many people have very compelling reasons not to return to work (COVID concerns, caregiving responsibilities, and the like), so the best way to circumvent the next crisis may be to give them a reason to like working for you.

Whatever’s coming next, I think it’s a safe bet that you’ll need to be on your toes for it. So give your team and yourself some space, and hope that the next bend in the coaster is a gentle one. (See Changing Work Culture, E&P June 2021)

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at doug@silverwind.biz.

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