THE PANDEMIC has totally disrupted so many parts of our lives, not the least of which is the workplace. So I’ve been wondering how our organizations will look in a few years.

In conversations with people who work in a variety of industries, a common theme is astonishment that work requiring an office setting a year ago can effectively be done from home today. One person said to me, “If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.” We can relate.

While what we do may be similar, how and where we work is different. So where do we go from here?

Upon my arrival at the University of Mary Washington, I created small groups of faculty and staff and challenged them to dream a bit. What would our college look like in five years? I told them to not worry about budgets, personnel, facility issues or anything else. No boundaries should prevent us from dreaming.

About a week before the teams shared their dreams, a faculty member told me that she didn’t think I was going to be happy with their conclusions. When I asked why, she indicated most of the things being discussed were what we were already doing. No one was dreaming. They were playing it safe.

In response to that conversation, I created my own dream. After each team’s dreams were presented, there was an uncomfortable silence. There was little in each of the dreams that was progressive or challenged the status quo.

So I shared that one of the group members had prepped me for this eventuality. I then presented my dream for the college, and I don’t have any problem dreaming! I told them that, in the future, 100 percent of business students would study abroad before graduating.

Everyone reacted with incredulity and disbelief. “That’s not feasible,” I was told. But it was my dream for our students, and dreams shouldn’t have restrictions. At that time, about 10 percent of our business students studied abroad. I challenged the faculty: Even if we only reached 25 percent, would that be better than 10 percent? They grudgingly admitted it would.

So I challenge you today. Begin the conversation with “Imagine our organization three years from now …” or “What would our organization look like if …” You’ll be amazed at how very creative some of your staff will be. You’ll have naysayers, but don’t let them control the conversation.

What have you learned from COVID-19 that you will retain when it’s safe to return to offices? Or will you even return to your offices when it’s safe to do so? What practices and policies need to change based on what you’ve learned about teleworking? Will businesses that created new products and offered new services continue to produce and offer them?

Some organizations will revert to the way they did things before the pandemic. They will have missed a golden opportunity to proactively address issues. But most of us? I expect we will look very different in a year. Changes that need to be made should be discussed now. Ask your folks to dream a bit.

Follow the advice of one of my favorite businessmen: Walt Disney. He was once fired because he wasn’t creative enough. But there’s a famous quote attributed to Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” And you can.

And my dream of having 100 percent of our students study abroad? We’re not there … yet!

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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