Going Back To Normal? Not Going To Happen!

Going Back To Normal? Not Going to Happen!
Summary: Why would any sane person want to return to the past normal? Can anyone clearly define what is "normal"? The way we worked was an out-of-date concept long before the pandemic. The old work normal no longer has a place in a technologically innovative, knowledge-focused economy and workforce.

Embracing Change In A Changing Workplace

I recently read a tweet that got me thinking about how we used to work pre-pandemic. The tweet seemed innocent enough, but it also subtly represents the collective complacency we accepted prior to the pandemic, or as we now call, normal times. Here's the tweet, you be the judge:

"It's crazy! To think my team commuted daily to an office to sit in a cubicle for 40-hours per week to spend 20-hours weekly holding phone meetings with 10 people from different teams, all located in the same building. How did this ever make sense? Explain this to me?"

This tweet, in my humble opinion, is the tip of the proverbial iceberg of questions we should be asking. This isn't a bad thing. Reflecting on how we used to do things may be the pandemic's silver lining. It has forced us, as a society, to question things we did and to question things we may never have questioned otherwise. And isn't this what learning is fundamentally about? Questioning everything?

What's Normal?

This tweet has me asking, why would any sane person actually want to return to the past normal? Can anyone clearly define what is "normal"? Our way of working was an out-of-date concept long before the pandemic. It no longer has a place in a technologically innovative, knowledge-focused economy and workforce. Essentially, the pre-pandemic way of working is the equivalent of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

I've written about societal complacency before. It's insidious. Don't think so? Prior to the pandemic, we collectively believed how our society was so innovative and progressive. Clearly, we were not. We were complacently comfortable with our world under a false belief. Applying a 40-hour workweek, inflexible 9-to-5, mechanistic, industrial construct, purposefully designed for factory work to higher-level knowledge and technology-focused environments is completely unacceptable.

Something had to give. Something had to change. But it would only change if something significant forced the change. Then the pandemic arrived.

Changing Macro-Trends

If you think things have changed a lot, just wait. You ain't seen nothing yet. There will be significant changes in how we do things moving forward and you should welcome it warmly and be part of these changes. If not, then you'll certainly be left behind and have no one to blame but yourself.

What are these changes? Consider something like consumer buying behavior. The way you shop and buy things have you adapting to an eCommerce reality. You probably won't fully return to your past habits. Where and how we work has certainly changed and won't return to the past normal, and many of us will not want it to either. How companies hire people and where they geographically hire them from is changing. Opportunities have also opened up for people resulting from these unbounded hiring practices. Expectations, such as quality of life, are not as much of a concern and, in many cases have improved resulting from our ability to work remotely and to work flexibly.

The workplace will change "where" and "how"we'll work. Let's start with the "where." One thing's for sure, employers will have little choice but to offer employees "where-to-work" options. These options include working remotely, working in an office, or possibly something of a hybrid model. This is great news for employees since working remote (or hybrid) will be the most likely chosen option. However let's be honest, employers aren't necessarily choosing these options under the guise of looking out for their people. Granted, legally they're expected to provide safe work environments but their intent, this time around, is subtly embedded in self-interests. In short, it's about all roads leading to increased profitability.

Reducing lease and mortgage commitments is the low-hanging fruit (quick wins) to reducing infrastructure costs leading to the new "where we work" reality. Next to salaries, leasing is the next significant line expense on income statements. While the pandemic presents a unique opportunity to reducing a significant expense, it doesn't mean eliminating office space altogether...we're a long way from that happening. Superficially, it comes across as offering "where-to-work" options (and some may be sincere), however, their selfish intent is to increase profitability by reducing a huge line expense, along with any associated expenses.

Now, what about the "how-we-work"? What comes to mind is the old saying, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." For years, even decades, companies have been experimenting with remote work and ways to "re-invent" the dated 9-to-5 workflow approach. On one hand, some companies made a genuine effort, but most were simply placating employees and fluffing up their "Best Places to Work" campaigns to look more progressive than they actually were. Either way, companies worldwide are now forced to rethink and address "how" we work.

Different And Better Work

Fundamentally, companies are spinning this force of hand as "we care for our staff" but again, it's really about improving profitability. In this case, however, it benefits employer and employee alike. It's about approaching and improving productivity differently and for the better. From the organizational position, it's about squeezing out more "work" from existing staff while overall managing less staff and possibly reducing staffing requirements. Again, it's about improving productivity from existing resources to maintain and hopefully improve profitability...or simply, doing more with less.

From the employee position, it comes down to quality of work and renewed engagement. For example, notice how you don't hear about work-life balance as often since employees are working from home and offered flexibility of work. People are now being rewarded for the results of their actual work performance, not necessarily rewarded for showing up in the office.

Watch for employee engagement surveys that come out post-pandemic and rest assured you'll see an increase in workplace and employee engagement statistics. Employees, with or without leadership guidance, now focus on important and relevant activities rather than addressing urgent and valueless ones. Another bonus is removing extraneous stress such as commuting and preparing for the workweek on the dreaded Sunday night. All time quality of life time given back to staff resulting in improved productivity.

Embracing The Challenges

Naturally, expect some of the downsides to affect employees more than the organizations, although, disenchanted staff can bring a company to its knees. First, the work environment dynamic we're familiar with will have to evolve. The collective and social interactions from showing up in a communal office offer tremendous collaborative and idea-generating opportunities will no longer exist. This is a loss since it fosters shared experiences and common identity that, for now, remote work hasn't solved. And those stakeholders who claim virtual video meetings are the solution are so very wrong. Looking back, the "water-cooler" and lunchtime chats were outlets for staff to collaborate, vent, or to simply disconnect and recharge, if even for a short period.

These downsides will cascade throughout the organization. A lack of collaboration and cross-collaboration will lead to reduced innovation, team unity, management oversight, and most relevant, strategy and vision alignment. But none of these employee or employer issues are unfixable. In the grand scheme, the numerous advantages outweigh the downsides in the same way, introducing automation at the dawn of the industrial revolution (the last significant economic shift) gave us promise and prosperity. The human species is resilient and trust me, we'll find workarounds and solutions for the negative elements.

Not Going "Back To Normal"

Collectively, we've all been in this for over a year now. Making adjustments within our new reality will take a little more time and much patience since the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel still remains a flicker. And it's only been just over a year to adjust to new work roles, schedules, routines, and priorities. But like I said, it has prompted employers and employees to reconsider many default assumptions about what they do along with how and why they do it.

Stop wishing or wanting to go "back to normal." There's no going back, only forward. Our past normal was a tired and dated approach only valid for rote and manufacturing work having no relevance or purpose in a technology-based, knowledge-focused environment. The new or "next normal" is going to require companies to evolve work practices, workflow, changes in what employees expect from employers, and employers learning from this pandemic experience what they must do to be more effective, efficient, and attractive.

The bright side of this pandemic is the opportunity to foster substantive change and to apply what we've learned to improve our future. Collectively, society didn't recognize the pre-COVID handcuffs of complacency. But now, we've all been granted permission to reinvent how and where we work without significant repercussions. It's now your responsibility to capitalize on this unique opportunity to learn, make changes, and grow.

Please share your thoughts and feedback with us. We’d enjoy hearing about your efforts. And who knows, it may be the topic of our next eLearning Industry article. Also, please check out our LinkedIn Learning courses to learn more about developing your business credibility for your learning efforts. Please share your thoughts and remember #alwaysbelearning!