3 Pandemic Lessons Leaders Should Learn Before Moving Forward


With ongoing supply chain issues, labor shortages, and record high inflation, it’s an era of uncertainty for many U.S. businesses. But leaders are confident about the year ahead, with 83% of companies focusing their business strategy on growth, according to a PwC survey.

Why such confidence? Almost 70% of respondents are using a lessons-learned playbook from the COVID-19 pandemic to guide them.

“The pandemic, for many, was a trial by fire,” said Joe Atkinson, PwC’s U.S. Chief Products and Technology Officer. “These times of change and uncertainty are an opportunity for leaders to differentiate themselves and make a meaningful impact.”

I sat down with Atkinson to discuss how leaders throughout their careers can support their employees and navigate uncertainty in 2023 and beyond.

  1. Balancing the role of “time” manager

The first-year turnover rate – the number of employees who left an organization with less than one year of employment – increased by 12% in 2021, according to data from Saratoga, PwC’s workforce benchmarking solution. Among those with less than one year at a company, almost 30% departed voluntarily, a 36% increase year-over-year.

Atkinson believes remote work has muddled employees’ boundaries between their work and personal life. Managers must not only lead with transparency about role and hybrid work expectations but also prioritize balance ​​to combat this.

“The pandemic sparked a real transformation in the workforce,” Atkinson said. “People discovered they want flexibility in their work hours and location, they want choice. Many felt empowered and motivated to fight for the policies that best suit their personal and professional lives. And leaders rediscovered how important talent retention is to their overall business strategy.”

In response to this challenge, Atkinson piloted a protected time effort for his team. They held blocked time on their calendars from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. local time on Fridays so that they would have more time to invest in development projects or focus on getting work done going into the weekend. The program, which was later rolled out to the entire firm as “Friday’s Your Way,” discourages employees from having internal meetings during this time or sending non-client emails. 

“Allowing remote work and flexible hours does not mean workers should be ‘always on,’” said Atkinson. “The pandemic taught us that to retain top talent and build trust, leaders need to be the biggest advocates for their employees’ work/life balance. If they don’t, workers will go elsewhere.”

  1. The power of stability in moments of change

“Everyone needs to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in times of change,” said Atkinson. “The sentiment of ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ isn’t going to cut it for businesses going forward.”

While businesses must respond quickly to short-term uncertainty, Atkinson says it’s important not to lose sight of long-term goals. As the world rapidly adopts new technologies and ways of working, Atkinson urges clients to understand the importance of investing in their own workforce by offering upskilling opportunities to ensure their business is future-ready. 

“Unexpected problems are going to come up, but they aren’t a reason to stop playing the long game,” he said. “We saw firsthand how the pandemic accelerated digital transformation and advancements in technology by several years. Periods of uncertainty can have a profound impact on the way work gets done. It’s our job as business leaders to ensure our people have the knowledge and skills to stay nimble and not only adapt, but thrive in the future of work.”

To Atkinson, building trust was the key to business leaders guiding organizations through the pandemic and trust will play an even more important role in the uncertain years ahead.

“Business leaders stepped up to do good for society and for their stakeholders through the pandemic – and it made business the most trusted institution in the country. But do you have a strategy in place to maintain and build on that trust?” he asks.

Almost two thirds of executives are focused on developing/refining their trust strategy. To build trust internally, Atkinson advises leaders to use the right tools and technologies to invest in employee development and in their day-to-day experience. While some companies may be focusing technology on employee tracking, Atkinson believes that businesses that invest in experience and skills will unlock performance capability in their workforce and build sustainable trust.

The risks and uncertainties facing today’s generation of leaders are different. But with the right investments in their people and in technology, leaders should capture the incredible opportunities it presents for delivering growth, new value, and making a meaningful impact.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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