The New Normal

The first few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis were exceptionally stressful. Leaders were faced with significant concerns over the welfare of their people and the huge economic impact of the crisis. Many were adapting to working from home full-time, some were juggling home schooling, spouses and adult children were going through an equally stressful time.

For many organisations, working flexibly is not a new concept. For others, this has been a period of rapid adjustment. You could argue it’s a positive; those leaders slower to the “working-from-home” concept have caught up. Indeed, many are already seeing the benefits.

One human resources director in the building materials sector commented he had noticed his leaders now had a higher level of connectivity with their teams. Some had instigated Friday afternoon drinks with the team, albeit virtually, where they all had a glass of wine and, of course, plenty of interruptions from children and pets. Allowing the barriers between home and work to come down has allowed them to relate far better with their teams on a level that would never have been seen on a “normal” Friday afternoon.

Another HR leader in the entertainment and media sector, said she’d never felt so calm “at work”, and for the first time in years felt she had the headspace to think clearly about strategic projects without interruptions.

Clearly this new way of working is having plenty of upside. Or is it? I’ve had just as many conversations with leaders craving to get back to the way things were. Despite many saying their productivity is far higher working from home five days a week, some HR directors said it was near impossible for people in true leadership roles to be as productive in this situation. They acknowledged that more task-focused/operational roles could be more productive, given the lack of usual work-day interruptions — but working remotely in a leadership role meant that you had to put in significantly more hours to achieve the bare minimum. Those ad hoc catch-ups in the corridor were invaluable to achieving outcomes quicker.

And with small children in the picture — aged eight and five in my case — the start of the second term couldn’t come soon enough. Yes this remote-learning gig is a juggle, but having structure for the children’s days is really important when you still have to get your own work done.

What will change?
Of course, there are pros and cons to working remotely versus working in the office, but the new normal doesn’t have to be one or the other. Regardless of how you’re finding your current normal, there are going to be significant changes to the way we work and get work done when the current restrictions pass. While organisations will become more accepting of flexible working arrangements, the outcome will be broader than that.

One large ASX-listed business has already undertaken a major piece of work to assess what in-office roles they will cut altogether. Another is looking at the possibility of significantly reducing their workspace in order to have different teams working in the office on different days. Do you need your marketing team in the office on the same day as the legal function? Will executives really be flying interstate as regularly when travel restrictions are lifted? Much time and money can be saved in areas that were previously accepted as the norm.

What will the impact be?
From an organisational design perspective, things will look different. The way we get our jobs done will change and become more fluid. But it is important to note that leaders have serious work to do in rebuilding trust and engagement.

Some organisations have recently reported significant spikes in engagement with their people. This is great news on the face of it, but once the dust settles, we won’t all go back to our jobs and carry on as if nothing happened. People will be anxious that the organisations they work for were so fragile that their jobs could be so disrupted, so quickly.

The COVID-19 challenge has been huge for leaders, but how we recover in the new normal will be just as important.