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Should we stop talking about a new normal?

Updated: Jan 10

Personally, I feel like we could be on the precipice of huge change in our working cultures. If we are brave and wholehearted (to quote Brené Brown in her book “Dare to Lead”), it could propel us towards a more sustainable, creative and empathetic working life - describing it as a new normal just doesn’t seem to do it justice!

A recent survey by HR News concluded that 73% of Britain’s workforce feel that remote working has positively impacted working culture. If I think about the conversations we have been having over the last 5 years about workplace culture – debating the 4 day week and flexible working (which at the time seemed to mean 1-2 days at home) and how we have created such a shift in 6 months feels incredible to me – we have been propelled 10 years into the future in this working from home experiment!

However, we need to acknowledge that many people have reported worsening mental health – leaving aside for a moment, health-related anxieties in relation to the pandemic, there are many difficulties in isolated working from feelings of loneliness and invisibility, to boredom and lack of motivation to overwhelm and distress as personal and working lives have collided.

In particular, our homes and personal lives were not set-up for full time home working – if we consider the £ms spent on designing and building London commercial offices from calm or inspiring décor, optimal temperature controls and ambient noise and how of many of us are spending 4 hours a day working in bed and the other 6 hours of our working lives fighting for elbow space on the dining room table. Or you may be squeezing in calls around endless childcare and yes the schools have returned, but there is little before or after school provision currently and therefore, the childcare nightmare that many parents are battling with has not been fully resolved (to allow you to work a full day in “normal hours”). I have seen many press articles about the herald of our new normal way of working but as the Telegraph recently reported there are going to be long-felt consequences of this lockdown on the gender pay gap as women disproportionally bore the burden of childcare through this time.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that things feel challenging.

But I also recognise that many have enjoyed aspects of this experience from the ability to eat with the family each day, not having to commute on packed public transport and enjoying a more local way of life which is surely a good thing as local economies have benefitted from us all looking for our mid-morning coffee fix.

But whether you’ve loved it or hated it, I think that we can all agree that what’s missing is the ability to truly connect with our colleagues. Not just on the endless Zoom calls but those informal chats, walking out to lunch with a friend, a quick coffee or saying hi. Personally, I’ve realised that I’m missing seeing many people who are acquaintances who I’d regularly bump into but I don’t have a specific reason to “jump on a Zoom” with. That makes me sad to be honest.

Also, it’s yet to be proven but I predict that those starting new roles or entering jobs for the first time will find it harder to assimilate to the culture of the organisation, learn on the job and establish those trusted relationships which are the currency of working life.

So, there’s a need for a more nuanced response from businesses and leaders, balancing the need to return whilst maintain wellbeing and connected, but equally keeping the workforce safe and following the guidelines. My fear is that we get ushered back into an office environment based on the leaders’ preference returning to a culture of presenteeism and the need to be visible. This can’t be a one size fits all response and also not at the preference of the person at the top!

In my view there needs to be a balance between home working and office-based activities – the office will evolve into a place for connection and community and not somewhere to go to do your emails. Perhaps meeting as a team on set days to collaborate and agree priorities and then being apart to get work done – as a consequence I’d hope this reduces all the Zooming. But we need guidance and tools (and permission) to restructure our working weeks in this way – we won’t be available on email at a moment’s notice on the days we’re in the office, decisions will need to be taken collaboratively together in the office, and then we are left to work on projects in isolation when we’re at home. Personally, with the right structure I believe productivity could soar!

Our homes will need to evolve to accommodate our working lives and we will need to invest in better infrastructure to support our working. I also have recently invested in more kit to help my working experience at home - a laptop stand, keyboard and daylight lamp.

Organisations will need to embrace more virtual learning opportunities and development opportunities for their people – undoubtedly additional pressures on teams through this time will take their toll and having the right support for leaders and teams to grow through this time is important.

As leaders there is an opportunity to change the way we operate at work – we have had a glimpse into the personal lives of those at the top and it has created a greater sense of connection (in most cases) as they have become more human. How they continue to respond will be important. Trust and openness is key.

What are your intentions? Do you want to use this experience as a catalyst for change? Or are you keen to go back to normal?

If you’re interested in this topic and would like to discuss, I’m always open to a (virtual) coffee! Do get in touch.


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