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Returning to ‘Normal’?

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

Over the course of the pandemic, we adapted in really remarkable ways, and relatively quickly. To quote an odd source for business wisdom, Russell Brand, “It seems that you can radically reorganize society in a few weeks if you can be bothered to. ” We adjusted to remote collaboration, changing expectations for our roles and team dynamics, increased use of digital tools, and many other shifts faster than we could have ever imagined.

Through all the tragedy and loss, there were also a fair number of silver linings in the adjustments we made over the past year: Shortened commutes (to about 12 feet); more time with our children and families; realizing a really good email can replace a meeting; and proving quality work can be done while wearing a nice shirt and yoga pants.

As infection rates drop, states are lowering restrictions, schools and businesses are reopening, and employees are coming back to the office. Barring surprises from variants, we are on our way back to ‘normal’.

Except that... a lot of us… a whole heck of a lot of us (including many of our employees)… don’t want to go back to ‘normal.’ Many employees are asking - What if I still want to have those beautiful mash-up moments? What if I don't want to commute for 2 hours every day? What if I want to preserve the email over a meeting?

You may have realized your employees aren’t all celebrating the return to pre-pandemic conditions. For those who haven’t returned yet, you may be hearing the whispers of discontent at the prospect. For us, this means there is a huge opportunity in returning to the office in a way that reinforces our humanity. All those positive shifts - the ways our humanity shone through this past year - we can make those the ‘new normal’. We can keep each others’ well being as a priority, even when the impacts of this global pandemic begin to wane.

We’ve had the good fortune of helping clients think through this inflection point and we’ve discovered that there are 4 critical questions for embracing the new normal:

  1. What truly requires physical co-location? - Many assumptions were tested and dismissed this past year. Turns out that office face-time isn’t as essential as we thought - FaceTime (or Zoom / Hangout / BlueJeans) works just as well for a lot of collaboration. Nuanced creative work and complex ideation are better served with in person collaboration (think about those dialogues where you want someone jumping up at a whiteboard to turn the words into a visual concept). Similarly, if special equipment or a shared physical resource is needed, that warrants a trip to the office. However, the regular project team meeting or all staff updates? Turns out those do quite well with remote tools.

  2. How can we make the time we are together in person as productive as possible? - Hybrid home/office work increases the importance of planning the time we’re together to make sure we use it well. It also creates opportunities for new ways of working altogether. For example, meeting in a new and different environment can increase creativity. Less frequent time in “the office” can be replaced with more frequent time doing offsites or hosting brainstorming sessions in new and unique locations.

  3. What new collaboration practices should we scale? Many of our clients formed a ‘Covid Response Team’ in the early days of the pandemic, and some ran them like Agile teams - leveraging the idea of sprints and daily standups to manage non-technical work streams. They worked really well. Others found that some tech tools like Miro or Jamboard were game-changing in terms of real-time multi-party collaboration. Those and many other innovations should be captured and scaled.

  4. How can we better support the well-being of our employees? - The pandemic gave us permission to check in, personally, with each other in ways we didn’t used to. We asked, ‘how are you?’ and really listened to the answer. We made more allowances for childcare or family conflicts. We understood when someone wanted to be off video due to ‘zoom fatigue.’ Some studies have even shown that productivity went up! It took a pandemic for some cultures to shift, and for leaders to be more mindful of the wellbeing of their employees. Wise leaders will realize that this is a wise investment, sans global crisis.

As leaders, it is a huge opportunity to seize this moment - to make it a turning point toward a more humane future. Be wary of inertia - returning to old ways of working is tempting, as it seems like the easy road to just follow the same old footsteps. To do so is to risk having those on your team, who know better, realizing that there are better ways, in other places, and other companies.

We’d love to help you navigate your way to a new normal. If you are interested in our 'return to normal' workshop, contact us here.

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