The freezing weather that hit Texas last week delayed author and University of Houston professor Brené Brown's appearance at the American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute 16 from Thursday to Saturday. In her online presentation delivered February 20, Brown told booksellers to improve their communication skills and not to anticipate a return to normalcy, but to prepare for a future of constant disruption.

Brown opened the final day of the three-day virtual event in conversation with Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., where the two discussed the challenges of leading an organization -- in this case, a bookstore -- during challenging times, like the ongoing pandemic, and the need to have meaningful conversations with staff.

"I start each day by asking my entire team to do a two-word check in, this is when you ask them to describe how they are doing in two words," said Brown, who explained the practice helped virtual employees connect emotionally with the leadership team and each other. "It is very important now to make sure people are seen and their struggles are acknowledged. We need to normalize that everyone is in a struggle. Everyone is weary. Everyone is anxious. You are not alone. That no one has this figured out."

Brown explained that employees, working remotely, need more communication from management to feel secure. "In the absence of data we make up stories. Working remotely we have to fill in a lot of gaps, and will make up reasons for why things may have changed. During weird work times like these, we cannot control people making up stories about what has happened. But you can be a leader, who asks, 'Before you make up a story about why something happened, can you check in with me and fact check the story.'"

The conversation also touched on the need for managers to give themselves space and time to strategize for the future, for the need of booksellers to "communicate their own humanity" to customers, and to focus -- when they can -- on what they are most passionate about: selling books and building community.

Asked by a bookseller how to do this, when many bookstores have been reduced to becoming de-facto fulfilment centers for online orders, Brown suggested booksellers commit as much time to reaching out to customers and clients and treating them much the same way they do with their colleagues: with empathy and concern.

Brown emphasized that there will be a constant stream of "not normal events," and encouraged everyone to read Jim Collins's book Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0. Brown then went on to quote from the book:

“We’re living history, surprise after surprise after surprise. And just when we think we’ve had all the big surprises for a while, along comes another one. If the first two decades of the 21st century have taught us anything, it is that uncertainty is chronic; instability is permanent; disruption is common; and we can neither predict nor govern events. There will be no ‘new normal.’ There will only be a continuous series of ‘not normal’ episodes, defying prediction and unforeseen by most of us until they happen.”

She finished by saying to not expect a return to normalcy. "I think we will be living in constant disruption," she said.

Also on the agenda for the final day were panels covering neurodiversity in the workplace and recent changes in labor laws. The traditional mass author signing session at in-person Winter Institutes was replaced by a session of virtual author events, which saw authors broken out in groups in a variety of virtual rooms based on genres or topics. The day ended with a trivia contest to raise money for Binc, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.

At the end of the event, the news was released that Winter Institute 17 will take place in Cincinnati, Ohio, February 13-16.