Will there be a New (and better) Normal for how we work?

May 2020

I have been grappling recently with the much referenced concept “The New Normal”. It troubles me on a few levels. After all, if some aspect of human behaviour is new, can it yet be normal, and likewise once it is normal, is it any longer new? I ask this with some intention of humour (probably failed), but think about lockdown. That’s not normal (hopefully), but to many it is now past new. And when COVID-19 is all over (and how do we know when that is?), does everything we do change? Will it instantly seem normal? Or will we revert to the previous normal, and back to the way we behaved before? So the “new normal” will actually be a reversion to an “old normal”?

This isn’t intended to be entirely flippant. No doubt the ways in which we go about our personal and business lives will change, but it will be a patchwork of BC19 (Before Corona19) and AC19 (After Corona19) behaviours. After all people and their circumstances vary a lot. Take travel and work – some will remain cautious, even nervous about travelling on public transport, and about returning to their place of work. Some, having discovered how it is to work at home, will look forward to enjoying the extra flexibility it provides them, while others can’t wait to get back to enjoying the company of their colleagues at their place of work.

In a survey on the “State of Remote Work” in 2019 by Buffer, 99% of respondents said they would like to work remotely at least some (my italics) of the time for the rest of their career, with 40% saying the biggest benefit is a flexible schedule. But significant percentages also struggled with “unplugging after work”, loneliness and difficulties with collaborating and/or communicating. That was BC19. It will be interesting to see what the results of that survey would be AC19, but clearly there already existed a trend or general interest among workers to work from home where it is feasible.

So, BC19, a movement already existed toward working at home. And many will now have acquired new-found skills in web conferencing, and hopefully discovered that business collaboration tools are for more than just idle chat. So for some there has been a revelation that working at home is entirely feasible, at least on a technical level. In some parts of the economy, there is also evidence that CEOs are discovering business benefits from enabling their people to work from home. In a survey of 165 startup CEOs carried out by Culture Gene recently, “A whopping 76% of respondents believe that the change to working from home will benefit their company’s productivity in the long run.

Of course, working in a start-up is a different proposition to working in a longer established company where, let’s just say, that legacy systems, databases, processes, files and other resources are not always set up in such a way to be conducive to agile working. A similar survey to Culture Gene’s of more mature office-based businesses would be interesting, both from the senior executives’ perspectives of productivity, and from the viewpoint of employees.  Are workers struggling with more difficult access to business resources, both IT and human? Do they miss the banter, suggestions and ideas they hear from colleagues at the coffee machine? How hard are they finding it to maintain a good work-life balance, when children are at home, elderly relatives and neighbours need support, and domestic life is just too close to work life? After all, as the Economist’s 1843 magazine noted,Despite the commute and the colleagues, the sitting and the stale meetings, offices bring many of us something else too: joy”. (Can anyone suggest recent surveys on any of this?)

On balance though, AC19 is likely to see at least some, possibly a great deal of, migration of work from the office to home. Perhaps above all, that will require in many instances, developing new attitudes, habits and practices to maintain team cohesion, and it will provide a focus for digital transformation (actually more of a modernisation, an update to 21st century business practices).

But for those of us involved in providing and implementing technology for the workplace, what can we do to help? One place to look is in how collaboration has been engineered in isolation to everything else, as if when we communicate and share information, it is normal to do it in total isolation of all the other ingredients of “office work”.  In a recent interview, the author and adviser Thomas Power observed about collaboration tools, “you still have to bodge and mash things together, cocktail things together to make them work well”. It seems to me that we really must focus on simplifying work, properly recognise that collaboration and process are or should not be disjoint, and rationalise the number of tools and interfaces that employees must use in communication with others to get their work done.  

For information on how Vmoso aims to address that aim, go to https://vmoso.com/vmoso/features/.