As we plan for a new year, some things to consider. What do you need to do differently to win?

Last week, news broke that a Covid-19 vaccine co-developed by Pfizer was more than 90 percent effective–way higher than the 50 percent to 60 percent that scientists consider acceptable.

Many unanswered questions remain: Will the vaccine work on people who are most likely to be hospitalized? Can it be stored at 70 degrees below zero Celsius until patients are injected? Can enough doses be manufactured and injected to control the pandemic?

Assuming these and other key problems are solved in 2021, in 2022 things may return closer to the pre-pandemic normal. No one knows what things will return to the way it was before, and what pandemic-induced changes will survive the end of the pandemic.

Business leaders should prepare now for this partial snapback. Here are five steps you should take.

1. Listen to how your customers’ top priorities will change post-pandemic.

Changes in your customers’ top priorities after the pandemic could represent an opportunity or a threat. The outcome depends on how you position your company in relation to customers’ changing priorities.

For example, if your business supplies technology to run restaurants, the end of the pandemic will change how restaurants operate. When people no longer need to keep at least six feet apart, they will crowd back into restaurants and bars. Restaurant owners will staff up and will need to boost their inventories.

If your company changed its product portfolio to keep up, you could enjoy a boost in sales. Otherwise you would lose those customers to a rival who adapts.

To stay ahead of your rivals in satisfying these changing customer needs, you should listen to, say, 20 of your current customers. Ask them what keeps them up at night and how their top concerns would change if the pandemic ended. 

The answers to these questions should spark your creativity, to think of how you could offer products that help your current customers resolve those evolving top concerns.

2. Ask potential customers how the pandemic’s end will change their urgent needs.

If you anticipate saturating the market opportunity presented by your current customers, consider targeting new ones. For example, if you serve customers in the financial services industry, consider targeting such companies in a new part of the world or winning over new customers from the media and entertainment industry.

Now is a good time to engage potential customers to learn about their current priorities and how the end of the pandemic might alter them. Such conversations could help you assess whether you could win over these new customers with your current products, or whether a shift in strategy would be needed to add revenue from these customers.

3. Assess your company’s strengths and weaknesses for outdoing rivals in meeting these new priorities.

By learning how current and potential customers’ priorities are likely to evolve after the pandemic, you can get a headstart over rivals who are so consumed by coping with the present that they are not thinking ahead.

To reach unbiased conclusions, hire an independent analyst to gather evidence to answer questions such as the following:

  • What business skills–such as product development, marketing, or human resources management–are most essential for your company to meet customers’ post-pandemic priorities?
  • Which competitors in your industry are growing most rapidly and how well do they perform these critical activities?
  • In which of these activities is your company ahead of those fast-growing rivals?
  • Where does your company lag behind fast-growing competitors and what should you do to bolster your weaknesses?

4. Brainstorm and rank business strategy options.

With answers to these questions, you ought to be in a good position to think of creative ways your company can better satisfy the post-pandemic priorities of current and potential customers. Here are some questions to help you brainstorm:

  • Which customer purchase criteria should new products satisfy more effectively than the competition?
  • What technologies should your company incorporate into the new products?
  • Should you add to your salesforce or teach your existing salesforce new skills? If so, which ones?
  • Should you partner with other firms or even acquire companies to give you the skills you need to win?

Once you come up with new strategy ideas, pick the best ones by comparing them on common factors such as the size and growth of the opportunity, how much market share you can win, the investment needed to implement the strategy, and its net present value. 

5. Execute the most compelling business strategy.

Once you select the winning strategy, begin assembling the resources needed to make it happen. To that end, hire people with the skills to execute your strategy, ask them to set goals, and hold them accountable.

Take these five steps now and you have the chance to move ahead of your rivals when it comes to meeting the post-pandemic needs of your customers. 

I know of one company that has been virtual from their beginning.

They are successful because they are intentional and make all those things we took for granted in a physical workplace happen virtually. If you are forced to stay or be remote, what changes do you need to make to keep everyone engaged and productive?

We find ourselves at a peculiar junction in American history. Our economy is going through a bit of an identity crisis. As coronavirus transmissions in the U.S. escalated in October, jobless claims fell, all three major stock indexes traded near-record highs and the TSA processed 6 million passengers in a single week, the highest number since March.

While most business owners remain vigilant, we are at an intersection where the hybrid office of the future is emerging. According to the Future of Work survey, 82% of employers believe their workers will be “back in the office” in 12 to 18 months. The Harris Poll, conducted on behalf of Glassdoor, found that three out of four office workers are “eager” to return to the office.

As we prepare for this eventuality, employers are:

Imagining A New Physical Footprint

Reports of the death of the office are overexaggerated. McKinsey projects that the time office workers will spend in their offices will decline by 12%. Companies will still have corporate offices and socially distanced workstations. In some cases, the office of the future will require more space, not less. The layout of the office will likely feature fewer cubicles and be more collaborative.

While there was already movement in that direction pre-Covid, the office of tomorrow will promote people working in smaller, cross-functional teams with less compartmentalization by department.

Embedding Technology Into Workflow

The average office worker spends about 25% of their time looking for information. The construct of work systems is more important than it has ever been now that workers are spread out over more locations. The hybrid environment has forced companies into adopting collaboration software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Many teams did that seemingly overnight, often in a haphazard way.

Companies should be rethinking how they conduct their work to better integrate work threads such as Slack, project management tools such as or Asana, and CRM such as Salesforce into cohesive working systems.

Accepting Virtuality

One of the biggest obstacles I’ve found in our current circumstances is that some workers are having a hard time adapting, especially in virtual meetings. We are going to have to find a way to show up in the same manner as physical meetings.

If you are leading teams, it’s important that you (or a colleague) actively facilitates work sessions online. If people are distracted by email, the facilitator should call on them directly. As a meeting participant, focus on the meeting as you would in person. Look into the camera and smile. Virtual meetings will only be ineffective if we let them be.

Providing Options

According to McKinsey, employees will be given more choices to work: 1) fully remote, 2) hybrid remote, 3) hybrid remote by exception and 4) on-site. Organizations will need clear practices to ensure that there are no unfair biases toward employees based on their chosen work style, and that their systems are designed and optimized for every option.

Retooling The Physical Environment

Companies are conducting audits of building functions such as ventilation and water systems. They are increasing preventative maintenance and ensuring regular cleaning of surfaces on a transparent schedule. One of the most important improvements to satisfy employee safety concerns will be ensuring physical distancing, though this practice can be difficult for employers to control.

Naming A Workplace Safety Czar

Companies used to have a safety coordinator and facility manager who made sure the lights remained on. Companies are now appointing champions to ensure development, deployment and enforcement of workplace safety rules.

The offices of tomorrow will likely have temperature readers, hand sanitizing stations and other technology we didn’t use prior to the pandemic. It will be important to coordinate these changes and communicate them to employees in a cohesive fashion.

Adopting A New Corporate Calendar

I am already seeing companies pivot to a new meeting cadence with meetings held midweek, much in the way that virtual meetings are held midday. Employers are seeking out experiences for their employees to feel more connected through town halls and the like, and they will be selective about which of these meetings must be held in person.

Employers should identify the few vital meetings that require the greatest collaboration, such as strategy meetings and innovation sessions. Hold those meetings in person when appropriate and in compliance with local regulations.

Formalizing The Feedback Loop

A trap employers are falling into is failing to create systems for feedback while employees are out of the office. This problem has been exacerbated by companies feeling the pinch of the pandemic and not providing raises to employees. Managers are resisting career discussions with valued staff.

Employees need more feedback now than ever, as well as a sense that they are connected to their teams. Provide structure so that managers are having one-to-one meetings with all remote workers on a regular cadence, regardless of whether there is compensation action. Monthly one-to-ones are just good business, regardless of the circumstances.

As employers, we will face many challenges in developing the blended office of the future. Managing employee safety, productivity and client service will be a tall order during a time when the future is uncertain and employees are afraid. That is why we need to manage our practices and lead our people with a level of intention unlike ever before.

ITR Economist Lauren Saidel-Baker shares insight into Zombie companies. Could you spot one if you were working with one?

Halloween is over, but something spooky still stalks the business world.


Zombie companies, that is.

A zombie company is a company that is only able to stay in business through borrowing or bailouts. Zombie companies may be able to pay the interest on their debt, but they cannot repay the principal and will require further credit to stay afloat.

The pandemic-induced economic disruption of 2020 likely created many zombie companies. But, as in a bad horror movie, their true nature will not be immediately evident. Many of these firms have relied on extraordinary support from the government to remain in their twilight zone of viability, using resources that could be diverted toward healthy companies.

Data through September indicates that US business bankruptcies remain relatively low at just 1.8 thousand filings, well below the 10-year average. However, this measure may obscure the actual health of US corporations, as years of near-zero interest rates have allowed undead firms to finance continued operations. The Federal Reserve’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic further reduced borrowing costs and eased credit conditions, potentially allowing zombies to multiply.

US Business Bankruptcies

So, what can you do if you feel surrounded?

  • Be aware of the zombies around you: Risks may come from suppliers, distributors, or customers. Evaluate the financial strength of firms on which you rely, and don’t be caught off-guard by incidents at other companies that may affect you. Many customers will be asking for generous invoicing terms in the current economic environment, but we recommend against chasing business at the expense of reasonable payment terms from questionable customers.
  • Don’t buy one: If you are actively pursuing acquisitions, be aware of the existence of these zombie firms and ensure that you take a realistic view of a target company’s growth projections. Even the most attractive valuation won’t matter if you end up with a zombie in your house! ITR Economics offers one-time forecasting programs to help you evaluate a target company’s growth prospects.
  • Don’t become one: Honest, straightforward scrutiny of your own firm’s position is critical. Evaluate your balance sheet and cashflow position and ensure that you are implementing the Management Objectives™ pertinent to your current phase of the business cycle. In doing so, you can escape the zombies and move forward with confidence into the macroeconomic recovery expected in 2021.

Tara Parker-Pope, the founding editor of Well, The New York Times’s award-winning consumer health site, shares 10 ways to calm down.

Peak Anxiety? Here Are 10 Ways to Calm Down

Can’t concentrate? Losing sleep? Binge-eating your feelings?

In a year of unprecedented stress, the nation collectively appears to be heading toward peak anxiety this week. People are sharing stories of stress eating, clearing their calendars (who could sit through a Zoom meeting during a time like this?) and threatening to stay in bed for a week.

The stress has consumed both sides of the political aisle. A poll released by the American Psychological Association showed that 76 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Republicans are finding the 2020 election to be a significant source of stress.

While there’s nothing you can do to speed election results or a coronavirus vaccine, you do have the power to take care of yourself. Neuroscientists, psychologists and meditation experts offered advice about the big and small things you can do to calm down. Here are 10 things you can try to release anxiety, gain perspective and gird yourself for whatever comes next.

As you feel your anxiety level rising, try to practice “self interruption.” Go for a walk. Call a friend. Run an errand. Just move your body and become aware of your breathing.

“Interrupt yourself so you can shift your state,” said Ms. Williams. “Get your attention on something else. Focus on something that is beautiful. Get up. Move your body and really shift your position. I think people really need to move away from wherever it is they are and break the momentum.”

When you feel your stress level rising, try this quick calming exercise from Dr. Judson A. Brewer, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University:

“It’s a different way to ground yourself,” said Dr. Brewer. “Anxiety tends to be in your chest and throat. Your feet are as peripheral as you get from your anxiety zones.”

It just takes a short burst of exercise — three minutes to be exact — to improve your mood, said Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University whose latest book is “The Joy of Movement.” Do jumping jacks. Stand and box. Do wall push-ups. Dance.

“If you give me three minutes, it works, as long as you’re moving your body in ways that feel good to you,” said Dr. McGonigal, who suggests picking an inspiring song to get you moving. “Anytime you move your muscles and get your heart rate up, you’ll get a boost in dopamine and sense yourself as alive and engaged. Movement for me is a way I sense my own strength and feel connected to hope and joy.”

Get rid of clutter, make a scrapbook, get a new comforter, hang artwork.

“It’s not frivolous to do something like declutter, organize or look around your space and think about how to make it a supportive place for you or anyone else you live with. It’s one of the ways we imagine a positive future,” said Dr. McGonigal, whose TedTalk on stress has been viewed nearly 24 million times. “Anything you do where you take an action that allows you to connect, whether consciously or not, with this idea that there’s a future you’re moving toward, that’s like a hope intervention. It’s something you’re doing now to look after your future self.”

This simple practice is easy to remember and is often taught to children to help them calm themselves in times of high stress. (I tried this the other day in the dentist chair, and it helped a lot!) Dr. Brewer has created a video explaining the technique, which works by engaging multiple senses at the same time and crowding out those worrying thoughts.

Step 1. Hold your hand in front of you, fingers spread.

Step 2. Using your index finger on the opposite hand, start tracing the outline of your extended hand, starting at the wrist, moving up the pinkie finger.

Step 3. As you trace up your pinkie, breathe in. As you trace down your pinkie, breathe out. Trace up your ring finger and breathe in. Trace down your ring finger and breathe out.

Step 4. Continue finger by finger until you’ve traced your entire hand. Now reverse the process and trace from your thumb back to your pinkie, making sure to inhale as you trace up, and exhale as you trace down.

Spend time outside. Watch birds. Wander amid the trees. Take a fresh look at the vistas and objects around you during an “awe walk.” Recent research shows that consciously taking in the wonders of nature amplifies the mental health benefits of walking.

Numerous studies support the notion that spending time in nature and walking on quiet, tree-lined paths can result in meaningful improvements to mental health, and even physical changes to the brain. Nature walkers have “quieter” brains: scans show less blood flow to the part of the brain associated with rumination. Some research shows that even looking at pictures of nature can improve your mood. Our brains, it seems, prefer green spaces. One small study found that exercisers exposed to the color green found it easier to exercise and were in a better mood than exercisers exposed to gray or red.

Many of us are vertical breathers: When we breathe, our shoulders rise and fall, and we’re not engaging our diaphragm. To better relax, learn to be a horizontal breather. Inhale and push your belly out, which means you’re using your diaphragm. Exhale and your middle relaxes.

For a deep (and somewhat complicated) dive on belly breathing, grab a tape measure and take this “breathing IQ” self-exam from Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist and author of “Breathing for Warriors.

“If you’re breathing with your shoulders, you’re using auxiliary muscles, and you’ll have a higher heart rate, higher blood pressure and higher cortisol,” Dr. Vranich said. “If you breathe diaphragmatically, you’re more apt to be calmer.”

Give your mind a break by watching this cat comfort a nervous dog, or check out the jellyfish cam at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You’ll find more fun diversions on our new interactive Election Distractor, including a digital stress ball, a virtual emotional support dog and Donald J. McNeil Jr., the Times’s infectious disease reporter, giving you optimistic news about the coronavirus vaccine.

Take a lavender foot bath, burn a scented candle or spritz the air with orange aromatherapy. It’s only a temporary reprieve, but it just might help get you through election night.

A study of 141 pregnant women found that rubbing or soaking feet with lavender cream significantly reduced anxiety, stress and depression. Another study of 200 dental patients found that orange or lavender aromatherapy helped them relax before treatment. Lavender baths lower cortisol levels in infants. Even antidepressants work better when combined with lavender therapy.

Why does aromatherapy, particularly lavender, appear to have a calming effect? Some research suggests that lavender reaches odor-sensitive neurons in the nose that send signals to the parts of the brain related to wakefulness and awareness.

Accepting the result of the election doesn’t mean giving up if things don’t go your way. In fact, you’ll be more effective at pursuing change if you accept the situation. “Our anxiety comes from the desire to have things be different,” said Ms. Williams. “There’s going to be the day after the election. And the day after that. We need to be present to what is, regardless of the outcome you want.”

Thinking about history and those who have faced seemingly insurmountable hardship in the past can help you gain perspective, accept current events and make plans to pursue change.

“My ancestors had to prepare themselves, over and over again, for moving toward a freedom that was nowhere in sight,” said Ms. Williams, referring to Black Americans. “We prepare for life as it unfolds, not our ideal image of it. That is, literally, the only path forward.”

What opportunities can you take advantage of in the new world regarding real estate.

Kellogg School of Management has some insight.

The COVID crisis has thoroughly upended how people live, work, and shop. And this, in turn, has upended real estate markets.Add Insight
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Whether it’s tech workers abandoning dense urban cores for more space in the countryside, restauranteurs converting from dine-in to takeout, or companies suddenly going virtual while locked into an office lease, it’s clear that the ways we are using space—and the amount we’re willing to pay for it—are changing.

“The COVID crisis has led to a pretty big reallocation in the shares of goods that people spend money on,” says Charles Nathanson, an associate professor of finance at the Kellogg School.

“For a lot of people, it makes sense to dramatically increase the amount they are spending on the shelter because they’re spending so much more time at home,” he says. But, of course, the calculus looks quite different for companies renting office space for a workforce that may not be coming back anytime soon.

So what might we expect from residential and commercial real estate as we head into the year ahead?

“The key to the real estate markets now is knowing how temporary or permanent the effects of the pandemic are going to be,” says Nathanson.

Residential Sales Are a Bright Spot

When cities across the U.S. went into lockdown in early 2020, several things happened that ended up having a positive effect on housing sales.

First, people suddenly working from home became less dependent on living near their workplace, so they could consider buying beyond what they had previously considered a reasonable commute. Second, with whole families now cooped up at home, larger spaces—and yards—became more desirable. And third, many of those same people, in the absence of vacation and entertainment spending, have more money to invest in housing.

“There is a substitution effect, where all of a sudden people want way more residential space than they wanted six months ago,” Nathanson says. “So that’s why I think of why we may have situations where we see big house-price increases, even as a lot of people are losing their jobs.”

Still, despite the notable boost in demand, housing developers are taking a more wait-and-see approach. New-housing starts are up over historical averages, but this may be due more to developers playing catchup after a big dip during the spring and early summer lockdowns than to an enduring trend in new suburban housing.

“Building a house is a pretty long-term investment,” Nathanson says. “You don’t want to do that if this is all over in a year. Which is why, to me, this situation is so unique. There’s a huge short-term demand shift for where people want to live. But if it’s all going to revert in a year, then it won’t make sense to build new developments.”

Given the combination of higher demand and tighter inventory, Nathanson predicts that the residential housing market is likely to see prices continue to rise—and unlikely to experience the volatility of 2008–2010.

“Some people might lose their jobs and, they might not make payments, but in markets where prices are rising, they should be able to sell their house and pay back a lot of their mortgage. Or if the bank repossesses it, it won’t be as big of a financial hit to the bank because the offset value will not have fallen—so I wouldn’t be worried about a big foreclosure crisis,” Nathanson says, “or the ripple effects in neighborhoods when you have lots of vacant houses and it hurts property values.”

Rentals Will Fluctuate

While home sales are likely to remain robust, the residential rental market faces a more uncertain future, particularly as government support for renters—including eviction moratoria—begin to expire and the job market continues to lag.

“Rents are more about the here and now,” Nathanson says, making them more volatile in response to shorter-term uncertainty.

He notes that an uptick in move-outs and evictions, if owners can’t find renters to replace them, could put stress on the residential real estate markets.

So while building owners may want to take advantage in the near term, the fact that much of the rental stock is in cities—many of which are seeing an exodus—means that demand may eventually dry up. And if the U.S. sees another spike in unemployment, landlords may need to renegotiate leases with tenants—and mortgages with banks—to avoid foreclosures.

“If the uncertainty is longer lasting, you might see a very significant decline in economic activity in central cities,” Nathanson says, which could make residential rentals in those areas less attractive.

Commercial Real Estate Is Up for Grabs

The future looks most uncertain in the commercial real estate market, which has experienced a significant decline in economic activity.

“In commercial real estate, there are all these long-term financial obligations that are based on the assumption that the demand would continue, which … it just fell off a cliff this spring,” Nathanson says. “So now it’s a question of who’s going to take the loss.”

If, for example, a mom-and-pop clothing store that holds a 20-year lease on a storefront can’t open, it may reach out to the landlord to see if it can make partial payments instead. And rather than kick them out at a time when few other retailers may be looking to replace them, the landlord may renegotiate to at least collect something. In turn, the landlord may look to its own bank to adjust the terms of its mortgage.

“All the parties involved have pretty strong incentives to try to work things out,” Nathanson says.

If indications seem to point to a longer slog—perhaps a new normal where safety concerns or work-from-home habits make retail stores and office spaces less desirable—we are likely to see dramatic changes in the way commercial real estate is utilized. Landlords facing a radically altered long-term outlook for commercial real estate may opt for a “rip off the band-aid” approach.

“We might see a lot of commercial property turning into residential housing,” Nathanson says. “You already see it in those old factories that got turned into loft apartments. But you would just see way, way more of that.”

Or, if urban cores also become less attractive to residents, those same commercial properties might be converted into distribution centers for a delivery-centric commercial economy.

“You may have areas of huge office buildings that are now just giant Amazon warehouses, so they have tighter distribution networks,” Nathanson says. “If we all knew for sure this would last 20 years, my guess is we would start to see that immediately. But because we don’t, I think people are just waiting.”

Communication is the root of all problems and all success. When it’s done right, things flow. How many unwritten rules have caused issues in your organization?

HBR shares areas you might have some that need to be acknowledged.

Every workplace has unwritten rules. If you’re on a video call with 20 of your colleagues, is it okay to turn your camera off? When you email your boss, do you include a bunch of emojis? 

During stressful times (i.e. right now), it’s good practice to write down the unstated cultural and emotional norms that exist within your team or company. They might have changed since you all started working from home, or perhaps they’ve never been explicit to everyone. You might know that it’s okay to take a walk in the middle of the day to clear your head, but it might not be as obvious to your colleagues, especially if they’re new hires. These seemingly small uncertainties (“Can I step outside to take a short break?”) can become major stressors. Combating them is crucial to helping everyone on your team feel secure and supported, especially in the current climate.

In our book No Hard Feelings, one of our most popular suggestions is to write an “It’s okay to…” list. We heard about the idea from the writer Giles Turnbull, who wanted to emphasize to new employees at the U.K. Government Digital Service that it was always okay to do things like ask for help, make mistakes, and have off days. He drafted a list, asked his colleagues to add other ideas, and then designed posters that he hung all over his office. His final list included things like “It’s okay to…”:

  • Say you don’t understand
  • Not know everything
  • Have quiet days
  • Ask why, and why not
  • Ask the management to fix it

Lists like these surface permissions that already exist within workplace cultures, but that not everyone is aware of or that people often need reminding of. Matt Reiter, director at World 50, a private community for C-suite executives, created a list with his team. “It was clear things had changed since my team started working from home but no one had acknowledged them,” he said. “There are things I know it’s okay to do, but that knowledge comes from my seniority and time at the company. If it’s okay for me to take a mental health day, it’s okay for you as well.”

Even the simplest reminders can lead people to change their behavior. Researchers at Google sent new hires an email reminding them that top performers at the organization regularly “Ask questions, lots of questions!” and “Actively solicit feedback — don’t wait for it.” Just listing that out helped new hires practice and develop those skills, increasing their productivity by 2%, an increase of about $400 million per year.

Given that many of us suddenly shifted to remote work earlier this year, we encourage teams to write Covid-specific “It’s okay to…” lists. You might include things like “It’s okay to…”:

  • Turn off your video if you need a break during longer calls
  • Shift your hours earlier or later to take care of family commitments
  • Have a child or pet pop into the video screen
  • Block off no-meeting time on your calendar for focused work

We’ve also heard of a few organizations in the U.S. that are creating election-specific lists ahead of November 3 that include items like “It’s okay to…” form discussion support groups, take the day off to vote, or ask for help prioritizing work if you feel overwhelmed.

Here are a few areas to consider when putting together a list for your team or organization:

Digital communication norms

Hopping on back-to-back video calls is draining. Be explicit about when people can turn off their cameras and when they should plan to have them on. For example, in small groups where you’re doing a lot of discussion or collaboration it may be important to have everyone visible. But at many workplaces, video calls have become the default, even for meetings when a phone call or no-video call would suffice. Or maybe your team agrees that everyone should turn on video for the first 10 minutes of a call to establish a connection, and then make it okay to turn it off for the remainder of the meeting. During the pandemic, business events organization PCMA created an “It’s okay to…” list to give their employees permission to dress comfortably and request a voice rather than video call.

We also recommend thinking through whether it’s okay to… have kids pop up, answer the door if a package arrives, or get up during a longer meeting to stretch or get a drink. These can all alleviate anxiety and level the playing field among employees. 

Emotional support

These are tough times. We’re not always going to perform at our best. Consider making it okay to have an off day, or to take a break in the afternoon. Beth Heltebridle, a branch librarian at the Frederick County Library in Maryland shared with us that she made a list with her Branch Leadership Team during their library closure due to Covid. Beth told us, “We shared our list out to build morale in these trying times, and have been sending it to new hires now that we are onboarding again. One of the hardest things is that our days look so different, and we miss interactions with other team members. Some of these ‘unsaid rules’ may be missed in our current situation, so we wanted to be sure to state them to new members and remind the rest of the team that our culture remains unchanged.”

The library’s list includes items such as it’s okay to… not check your email at off hours, say yes when someone offers to grab you coffee, ask for patience, and make space to concentrate.  

Psychological safety

New hires are the most likely employees to lack a sense of belonging and psychological safety. That’s why it’s especially important to emphasize to new hires that it’s okay to ask lots of questions and not feel like you know everything a week into starting your new job. Being remote makes it harder to get answers to small questions. And given the economic climate, many people feel lucky to even have a job or are terrified of losing theirs, which may make people feel especially hesitant to reach for fear of coming across as needy, slow, or annoying. 

But if people aren’t asking questions, they either aren’t doing their job as well as they could be, or they’re spending precious brainpower on worrying about how they are being perceived. These lists give permission for everyone to ask questions. You may even want to include specifics, like it’s okay to… ask questions, even if you think they are silly, or ask clarifying questions about questions you’ve already asked. 

Work styles

We often work with people who have very different work styles — think extreme extroverts, cautious decision makers, and assertive debaters. And often the work styles that gets most normalized at an organization are those people in power or in the majority. For example, if most people are extroverts, especially leaders, an organization may default to large meetings and collaborative sessions.  

You could use an “it’s okay to…” list to make people with different work styles feel more comfortable, emphasizing that they don’t have to adapt to belong. 

For example, you could make it okay for introverts to rely on the chat function in a video call rather than unmuting themselves and speaking, or to ask for more time when making an important decision. Briley Noel Hutchison, a program manager at Girl Scouts — Diamonds of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, told us that her program team made it okay to be direct, have space for silence, and to follow up with people to help projects stay on track. 

As an added bonus, these lists can turn into recruiting tools. Giles Turnbull told us, “Several people said they’d applied for jobs at the Government Digital Service as a direct result of seeing the blog post about the posters, or of seeing images of them on social media. One photo of one poster became a powerful recruitment asset.” 

The act of making a list is a simple exercise that has positive benefits for new, tenured, and future employees — and allows you to reinforce your culture even when the nature of work changes. 

As leaders we always make decisions with limited information. Fast Company shares 5 ways to do that more strategically.

Business often requires bold actions on important decisions such as launching an innovative idea, creating a new advertising campaign, or changing the direction of a company. These decisions offer a rare opportunity to acquire a valued “psychological currency,” in the form of a mental payoff: courage.

Courage might even be viewed as one of the psychological enticements of doing business. It’s a reward people receive for taking bold actions, whether it comes to buying stocks, becoming an entrepreneur, or changing the direction of the company. The motivational force of courage might even contribute to the recent spurt in new businesses being started at the fastest rate in a decade, hoping to capitalize on an evolving economy.

Conventional wisdom states that people are generally risk-averse, especially when it comes to monetary losses from gambling. People generally choose smaller, safer bets over larger, riskier ones. However, recent research that David Gal of the University of Illinois at Chicago and I conducted shows a different pattern of results when people make major or important life decisions. People exhibit a preference for larger and risky options, such as leaving the security of a safe job to start a business. A potential contributing factor is that people want to feel, see themselves as, and ultimately be, courageous.

Boldness is a fundamental requirement of pursuing high-risk, high-reward outcomes in many endeavors. In our research, we observed people were more prone to take riskier options such as putting themselves all in to win or lose by making a gusty call in a football game instead of playing for overtime, or opting for riskier medical treatments with more positive payouts versus safer alternatives with less-positive payouts.


Too often, people mistakenly assume courage is pursuing something without fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is acknowledging fear and going forward with your eyes open despite that. Business abounds with such opportunities: buying a risky stock, starting your own business, or engaging in a hostile takeover.

There are other aspects to courage as well. Aristotle linked courage to the pursuit of a higher purpose. For those in business, this could be accomplished by important decisions that allow growth, mastery, and realizing potential. Courage is enhanced by making the choice for yourself—an act of free will feels courageous.

Courage is not all risky actions. It’s the result of measured and appropriate actions. Granted, at times it’s hard to discern between pursuing something with heroism versus reckless abandon. Given the natural attraction we have to see ourselves as courageous, how can we help ourselves make good decisions over reckless ones? Here are five steps to take.


Don’t do anything purely in the service of courage. Ask yourself: What am I doing and why am I doing this? This simple approach can help build the muscle of self-awareness. Balance the desire for boldness with business acumen. Weighing the risk/reward of your actions can increase your odds.


A useful person to give you feedback is a powerful ally. Even more important is to solicit that feedback from someone who is neutral—who is uninvolved in the outcome of your decision (e.g., not a partner or coworker). A neutral mentor increases your chances of receiving unbiased feedback.


It’s easy to get caught up in the end goal. Even more important than winning the game, however, is the successful execution of every play. Focus on the success of each step in launching and scaling your business as opposed to purely the end objective.


Business decisions often include a number of options, each associated with different levels of risk. Weigh the risk/reward of each option to identify what straddles the line between feasible and fulfilling.


With each success or failure, reevaluate your decisions. If you’re diligent, you will likely see a pattern. Are you too focused on making big bets so that you appear bold? Or do you appreciate the importance of the smaller bets until that opportune big move comes along? Assessing your results will help you fine-tune your decision-making.

As a leader, you’ll need to instill courage throughout the organization to keep innovation alive and ideas fresh. However, it is important to assess whether your actions reflect blind obedience to the desire to feel courageous or reflect sound and wise business decisions.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Why Workplace Ghosting Is on the Rise

In the 1999 film Office Space, a dark comedy about the mundane conventionality of work, disgruntled software engineer Peter Gibbons tells his new love interest, Joanna, that he hates his job and doesn’t want to go anymore.

When Joanna, played by actress Jennifer Aniston, asks Peter whether he is going to quit, he responds, “Not really; I’m just going to stop going.”

What was once a funny work of fiction is becoming an increasingly common reality as more employers report being “ghosted” by job applicants and employees who simply disappear without a trace. In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago cited an uptick in ghosting in its December economic activity report, and an array of media outlets — including The Washington Post, Inc.and Business Insider — have been publishing stories recently about the pitfalls of the practice.

“Candidates agree to job interviews and fail to show up, never saying more,” Chip Cutter, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, wrote in a June article for LinkedIn that garnered more than 5,000 comments. “Some accept jobs, only to not appear for the first day of work, no reason given, of course. Instead of formally quitting, enduring a potentially awkward conversation with a manager, some employees leave and never return. Bosses realize they’ve quit only after a series of unsuccessful attempts to reach them.”

The term ghosting comes from the world of online dating, where romantic prospects are often dumped without warning or even so much as a goodbye text. But as this bad behavior spreads from the personal to the professional realm, it raises questions about business etiquette and the shifting balance of power between employers and employees. Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli, who is also director of the school’s Center for Human Resources, believes ghosting reflects a change in today’s work environment, where employers once held all the cards and often treated hiring as “a commodity exercise.”

“When the labor market tightens, the power does start to shift,” he said. “I think part of the reason this is so surprising to employers is we’ve gone through 10 years of the worst labor market for job seekers, but the best labor market for employers and hirers. You know, you didn’t have to do anything, and people were just really grateful that you’d even consider their application. So, the power has changed, and that’s changing the story.”

Cappelli and Jay Finkelman, professor and chair of industrial-organizational business psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, spoke about ghosting on the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on Sirius XM. Following are key points from their conversation.“When the labor market tightens, the power does start to shift.” –Peter Cappelli

It Works Both Ways

Ghosting prospective employees is old hat for employers. Companies have been engaging in the practice for so long that it has become perfectly acceptable for them, the professors said. And with the prevalence of online applications, job candidates have gotten comfortable with the fact that they probably won’t hear anything back from a company – positive or negative.

“The expectation is that the employers are ghosting you. What’s different now is that the employees are starting to do the same thing to the employers,” Cappelli said. “It’s not a big surprise. But, frankly, anything that happens to employers makes noise and news; anything that happens to employees doesn’t necessarily make news. This is a two-sided problem. It’s started by the employers.”

Cappelli cited a recent survey by HR firm Clutch that found 40% of employees believe it’s reasonable to ghost companies during the interview process. He likened it to putting an item in your Amazon shopping cart but never completing the purchase.

Finkelman said it comes down reciprocity. “There is a feeling that this is more OK because it’s exactly what employers do. Businesses just grind through potential applicants and make determinations and decisions that are in the best interests of their clients and not necessarily of the applicants. And that message gets conveyed through.”

To be fair, Finkelman noted, employers simply don’t have the time to reassure every candidate in the pipeline. That lack of investment can make candidates and existing employees feel fine about ditching without notice.

It’s Driven by the Tight Labor Market

Both Cappelli and Finkelman said the increase in ghosting is also an indicator of just how tight the job market has become. Unemployment is below 4%, and employers across many sectors report they can’t find enough qualified candidates to fill jobs. It’s a situation that gives employees more leverage.

“I think there’s no question that it’s the environment that encourages that behavior,” Finkelman said. “Will it revert back to better manners possibly next year, 2020, when recessions are being predicted again? It will move in that direction inevitably as that ratio of job openings to candidates shifts.”

But the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story, according to Cappelli. Few employers are interested in hiring someone who doesn’t already have a job, so there’s a lot of pilfering of employees across industries.

Cappelli calls them “passive applicants,” people who aren’t necessarily looking but find better offers and head for the door. A majority of people hired last year fell into this category, he said.

“That really starts to change the dynamic a little here, and also the moral question [about ghosting],” Cappelli said. Employees who are approached frequently by recruiters will respond differently – i.e., be more likely to ghost — than those who are desperately looking for work.

Finkelman is bothered by what he calls an “underlying lack of concern about the welfare of others” when it comes to ghosting because the job market seems to rule over individual morality.

“I think the changing job market is more likely to influence the frequency with which candidates solicit other jobs or make changes, rather than the behavior that they engage in when they’ve made a decision to take another job,” he said. “In other words, do they do it in a classy way or do they do it in a tacky way?”

It Has Little Consequence for Applicants

American workers have grown up with traditional advice about the workplace: Always give two weeks’ notice; never burn your bridges; don’t speak badly of your former employer. Such platitudes have waning relevance in the ghosting era because there’s little consequence for employees and applicants who drop everything and leave.

“As long as there are more job openings, the likelihood of getting caught in this is relatively small,” Finkelman said. “And when it does happen, it’s satisfying for employers when someone comes back to them and they tell the applicant, ‘No, that’s already been taken. And if you don’t recall, you didn’t call us back.’”

However, Cappelli pointed out that the average recruiter gets 200 applications per job posting. That pile has to be whittled down to a smaller set to be reviewed by a hiring manager. If an applicant ghosts then reapplies later, the odds of being remembered or even reviewed by the same recruiter are slim.

“You shouldn’t do it because it’s the wrong thing to do, but the idea that you’re going to pay a price for doing this is kind of wishful thinking on the part of the recruiters,” he said. “How many thousand applicants do they see each day?”

Candidates have also become more savvy about what the professors call “ghost jobs,” which are postings for jobs that don’t really exist. Some companies call for resumes just to build their applicant pool; others neglect to delete postings for jobs that have been filled.

“Staffing industry analysts and other organizations that set ethical guidelines for their member staffing companies all know that this is an improper practice, yet it still does go on,” Finkelman said.

Job applicants catch on quickly and let others know about the bogus listings. It’s another aspect of bad employer behavior that enables employees to rationalize ghosting.

It’s Just Plain Rude

Ghosting may be accepted, but that doesn’t make it right, Cappelli and Finkelman said.

“I think we can put this question behind us. This is just not a good thing to do for either side,” Cappelli said. “It’s not a good thing for employers to do. They do it as a matter of policy because they think it’s easier not to respond to all these applicants. And for individual applicants or candidates, it’s not a good thing, particularly at the point where it becomes personal, where you have some tie, some conversation with a human as opposed to the applicant tracking software.”

Finkelman noted that the anonymity of digital is not a justification for rudeness. “There is a way to use digital and still be courteous about it,” he said. “There’s still no excuse for not responding online, either by the potential employee or the employer.” Although it’s not very personal, both sides could at least deliver bad news by email. “Not the most ideal and polite way to do it, but people today are not hand writing notes of regret — and that’s on both sides.”

In a world with few real consequences for ghosting, a person’s moral compass matters more than ever, Finkelman said. “Depending on the degree of narcissism of that individual and how self-centered that person is, there have to be other values in place to avoid playing the game in a way that may well be reciprocal.”

Getting Over Your Fear of Cold Calling Customers

A recent research study found that 48% of business-to-business salespeople are afraid of making cold calls. Sadly, salespeople who are afraid of making cold calls have trouble hitting their quotas, are more stressed, and are likely making less money than their counterparts who don’t share this phobia.

I don’t know who said it first — Henry Ford, Zig Ziglar, Peter Drucker, or former IBM chairman Thomas Watson Sr. — but the business wisdom embodied in these six simple words is inescapable: Nothing happens until someone sells something. And before anyone can sell anything, someone has to generate a sales lead. Although technology can help generate leads, most of us are still going to find ourselves picking up the phone to find prospects at some point in our sales career. Doing this typically requires some amount of cold calling.

In my work with thousands of sales professionals, I have found that there are two central fears around cold calling that inhibit effective and productive lead generation results. They are: 1) fear of sounding like a sales person; and 2) fear of failure.

Let’s deal with the first: Overcoming the fear of sounding like a salesperson is a simple matter of accepting that you actually are a sales professional. What else are you going to sound like? A mechanic? A programmer? Here’s a news flash: Mechanics sound like mechanics. Programmers sound like programmers. And salespeople sound like salespeople.

The key to getting comfortable with sounding like a sales professional is understanding that sales is an honorable profession. After all, we salespeople are talented problem solvers. We improve business performances and processes. We help consumers and businesses get the products and services they want and need. We keep our companies in business. Some salespeople provide medicine and equipment needed to save a life. Some provide the technology needed to improve business performance. Some provide the services we need to improve our quality of life at home and at work. So get comfortable with the fact that you’re going to sound like a salesperson because you are a sales professional. When you dial someone’s phone number or walk into their office, remember this: You are there to help them improve their lives and businesses. Be proud of that. Until you understand this simple concept, you’re going to be anxious and fearful about cold calling.

You are adding value. And when you make a cold call, it’s important to demonstrate your value upfront. For example, instead of calling a prospect and saying, “Hi, would you be interested in hearing about how my company can help your company?” start with something like this: “Hi, my company just funded a research paper outlining three ways to immediately improve profitability in your industry. I’d be happy to email you a copy if you’d like to share your email address with me?” Knowing that you are providing valuable information to your prospects can go a long way towards removing the fear and anxiety around cold calling.

Now let’s look at the fear of failure. Sometimes the fear of cold-calling comes from a limiting belief that we simply won’t be successful at it, which creates anxiety and leads to a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s even a medical term for this: Atychiphobia is an irrational and persistent fear of failing at something, and it’s been found to cause anxiety, panic, and feelings of powerlessness.

We often avoid cold-calling because of this fear of failure. Nevertheless, if you understand the physiological responses to fear in your brain and take a few simple steps to change it, cold-calling can become as routine as having your morning coffee.

According to health experts at the University of Washington, when you’re afraid, the blood in your body flows away from your brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for logical thinking. The more reptilian part of your brain — the amygdala — takes over, which helps you fight or flee, as the blood flows into large muscle groups. Unfortunately, while this physiological response prepares you to fight or run from your prospect, it also renders you unable to remember your own name. You are ready to fight — not think. The fear of failing at cold-calling thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the fear of failure causes the blood flow to diminish your cognitive ability, which in turns limits your ability to think and respond quickly, which in turn hurts your lead-generating results. The negative cycle is reinforced when a sales professional confirms the expectation by saying, “I hate cold-calling. I’m lousy at it!”

The key to getting better at cold-calling is to simply get more accustomed to it, so your body does not perceive fear. The more accustomed you are to cold-calling, the more confident you’ll be, which creates a more productive self-fulfilling prophecy. Granted, while confidence doesn’t always lead to success, it is often a prerequisite for it.

So how do you become more accustomed to cold calling if you’re afraid of it? Try role playing with coworkers; chances are they’re experiencing the same anxiety. You can also practice with friends or family. You don’t need to be perfect — we’re not looking for an Oscar-worthy performance. The primary reason I recommend ongoing role play is simply to remind the brain that there is nothing to be afraid of.

As you practice, you’ll realize that nothing bad is actually going to happen, which will in turn ease your fears. To reduce your anxiety further, you can also try offering something of value rather than asking for something from your prospect. For example, “I am calling today to find the best way to send you a complimentary report on ways to increase productivity in your industry.” Offering something of value is often less stressful than asking for something.

Once you’ve role-played long enough that you’re no longer feeling butterflies, you’re ready to try a live-fire situation. Keep in mind that it will clearly be more difficult when it’s for real, but a few real attempts after role playing will settle you down and help get you into a very productive groove.

Cold calling is one of the most critical steps in sales and business success. If you want to become a top producer, there is simply no way around it. The key is to take pride in your work as a sales professional, knowing you are solving problems and adding value. Get comfortable with your value and your role, and you’ll be well on your way to consistent sales results.

5 Reasons Executives Wait Too Long to Fire Their Direct Reports

Of all the difficult decisions executives face, few torment them more than having to fire someone on their own team. High-risk innovations, layoffs, and even major acquisitions don’t cause as much angst as removing someone from a senior position.

Recently, a client of mine — a division president of a large manufacturing company, let’s call him Kyle — struggled with this problem. One of his VPs of sales had missed his targets for the third consecutive quarter. The VP had been given a coach and additional resources to help him succeed, but was still unable to turn around his performance, causing significant employee turnover in his region. Removing him seemed like the obvious choice, but Kyle was tortured by the thought. “I want to give him one more chance,” he said. “Is it wrong to want to give him every possible chance to make it?”

Kyle, who did not routinely struggle with difficult decisions and leads one of the highest performing divisions in his company, is not alone. Firing someone is a decision rife with complexity and personal angst. But avoiding it only prolongs the inevitable and increases the consequences of keeping a poor performer at the top.

In my work with senior executives, I’ve observed five things that often get in the way of making the necessary call. Recognizing and correcting these behaviors early on can help you overcome the fear of firing an under performing leader and prevent the damage that may occur if you don’t.

A determination to fix others. Well-intended leaders often feel genuine commitment to helping direct reports succeed. The importance of coaching and feedback has been drilled into them. But when your commitment to someone’s growth exceeds their ability to grow, you are unwittingly contributing to their failure.

Kyle offers a case in point. He set out to help his VP of sales turn things around and he wasn’t going to stop until he did. He saw the VP’s under performance as his own personal failure to effectively develop younger executives. In reality, however, the VP was years away from thriving in a role with such high demands. While Kyle’s desire for people to succeed was admirable, his belief that he could, and should, make that happen was a form of arrogance.

This is not uncommon. Another HR executive I worked with prided herself in developing leaders others had given up on. She invested in coaching, training, and created “developmental assignments” for struggling leaders. She sometimes succeeded at uncovering great talent that others had prematurely discarded. But too often, under the guise of creating a culture that prized employee development, she set people up to fail by keeping them in roles they’d long proven to be incapable of handling.

Be careful not to confuse your commitment to employee development with masked “savior syndrome.” Playing the hero could come at the expense of someone else’s career.

Fear of delivering a fatal blow. One of the unique complexities of removing an executive from their role is the damaging consequences it may have on their career. Falling from a high perch can make a leader damaged goods when pursuing future opportunities. As a result, bosses may experience guilt when it comes time to let that leader go — guilt for not preparing that person to take on their current role or guilt about the struggle that person might go through when looking for a new job. But you can do much greater damage to their career and reputation by allowing them to publicly struggle. A better solution is to have an honest conversation with that person and offer support.

In Kyle’s case, a conversation with the VP of sales about his poor performance and his future aspirations enabled Kyle to see that not succeeding in this role didn’t deem the VP unemployable or untalented. While disappointed, the VP knew he wasn’t delivering, and was relieved to acknowledge it. He’d been thinking about other roles in the organization for which he was better suited. Kyle saw that he could help his VP look for more suitable opportunities within the broader organization or provide a reference for him at another company.

Other leaders can follow this example. Feeling guilty about a potential outcome that you have no control over helps no one. In fact, 68% of executives who are fired find a new job within six months.

Ego. Firing executives is especially difficult when you hired them in the first place. The decision to hire someone is a rejection of your leadership and it’s natural to fear what people will think when you need to go back on that decision and remove them. But no one is infallible to making a bad hire, and no one has complete control over whether someone succeeds. You should do everything you can to hire with rigorous standards and onboard effectively. You should not become so attached to your own hires that you lose objectivity.

In the example of Kyle, he had promoted his VP of sales two years earlier and he feared his judgment would be called into question if the VP failed. Though the VP excelled during his first year, further solidifying Kyle’s decision, market headwinds and major competition made his second year difficult. The VP was simply too inexperienced.

It’s common for leaders to be blind to the shortfalls of those they hire. But Kyle needed to see that, while the decision to promote his VP was a calculated risk, the conditions of that risk had evolved and keeping the VP in his current role could have serious consequences for the whole division.

Public visibility. When an executive is fired, the world inside and outside the organization sees it. Irrationally or not, people speculate about what’s going on. While you can’t control what people think about a major decision, you can minimize unfounded conjecture by being intentional in your communications about the exit and why it happened. Internally, try to normalize difficult exits by letting your team know that moving on is a part of business and be gracious to those who are leaving. Externally, focus on looking forward. Publicly acknowledge the aspirations your organization aims to reach or the challenges you are working to address. Remember, it looks far weaker to ignore poor performance than it does to address it.

Kyle feared that his boss, the CEO (for whom he was a succession candidate) and other key stakeholders outside the company, might conclude his division was unstable or his team was weak once he fired his VP of sales. And for the VP himself, it could mean public embarrassment and loss of respect. What Kyle needed to consider was what people might conclude if he didn’t remove the under performing sales VP. It is far more cruel to leave a leader publicly poundering, particularly in Kyle’s case when the VP’s under performance drove other talented employees out the door.

Perceived indispensability. Often, executives fear the disruption a departing executive might cause. Certain it will result in irreparable damage, they convince themselves and others of the executive’s indispensability to justify tolerating a poor performance or bad behavior. I have seen this fear used as an excuse for not firing under performing executives many times, but I have never seen this fear materialize. With a carefully choreographed transition plan, it’s possible for an office to return to normal quickly. Important people, like top customers, understand that things change. What they want to know is how you’re going to take care of them, regardless of who does it.

One of my clients once put up with horrific behavior from their sales executive because they “couldn’t possibly risk” losing his customer relationships. Externally, the sales exec was highly regarded. He spoke at conferences alongside top customers and was regularly invited to exclusive gatherings of prominent buyers. Internally, he was loathed for what he got away with: never attending meetings, refusing to learn new technologies, and consistently violating travel expense guidelines. Eventually, a newly appointed leader had the courage to clean house and replace him, and those who followed in his example, with fresh talent. They didn’t lose one customer in the wake of these exits, and within a year, top-line revenue had grown by 35%.

The complicated decision to remove a senior leader from their job should never be taken lightly. And while there’s no way to avoid some fallout from such a choice, the decision to ignore irreversible poor performance is a choice with far greater consequences. By acknowledging the above behaviors, and practicing ways to overcome them, you will not only help your organization move forward, but also the employees you’re afraid to let go.