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New Normal? It’s Time to Embrace the New Abnormal!

We’re hearing a lot these days about “the New Normal” to refer to future ways of working. The funny thing is, it sounds an awful lot like the old normal in so many ways.

Here I want to highlight three key areas where organisations need to challenge their assumptions and embrace innovation.

1) Avoid aiming for the “same old, same old”, only in more than one place

Phrases like “back to the office”, or even “back to work” (!), and the bland concepts of “hybrid working” and “the new normal”, reveal a yearning for the cosiness of the familiar.

Yes, there’s a broad acceptance that people will do more of their work somewhere else – but apart from that, how much is really changed? The conversation is mostly still about the same work, done in much the same ways, only in different places. The message of hybrid working and the new normal is really: “Phew, we’re going more or less back to what we’re used to”.

By contrast, concepts like Smart Working or its twin, Agile Working, are all about improving ways of working to deliver benefits for the business, for individuals, for the environment and society. And this transformation aspect is getting lost in the narrow focus on “hybrid” location.

So what kind of transformation?  How about attempting to:

  • Manage by results, not by time or presence
  • Truly empower employees to make their own choices about where, when and how to work
  • Cut the number of meetings by at least 50% – it can be done. (One UK government team experimented with having no meetings at all, with interesting results. Worth a shot?)
  • Seriously streamline time-wasting processes and practices rather than replicate them online. Why not go completely paperless. (OK, 99% paperless …)
  • Recruit people from anywhere in the world and don’t expect them to relocate
  • Replace most of the desks with more interesting space …
  • … and stop thinking about desk-booking systems. In fact, stop thinking about desks altogether as the starting point for office design.
  • Challenge apparently sensible ideas, like having defined team zones. Do you really need them if they sit three-quarters empty most days? How about reimagining shared and reconfigurable team space that enables rich collaborative activities, which can be used on occasions by various teams when people do come together, rather than a bunch of desks (yawn) for each team? What would this look like for you?
  • Have walking meetings/calls – whether in person or not. Take a walk on the wild side – or at least in nature – while doing so
  • Have more unbookable meeting spaces than bookable ones, to support more dynamic and as-needed decision making
  • Seriously investigate automated systems, drones, robots, remote diagnostics, wearables and more to seriously transform the work of hands-on and site-based workers, and all those who work with them
  • Think of all employees as being equally remote – i.e. the person in the office is just as remote to the majority of his or her colleagues who are elsewhere. Then design work and workplaces on that basis.

2) Avoid judging the new extended workplace on the standards of the old workplace

I’m finding a tendency in workplace research and opinion, to judge everything about working elsewhere by the assumptions and standards of office-based working.

For example, there have been many unfavourable comparisons between online collaboration and collaboration in the office. It’s mainly down to the relative lack of eye contact and body language – and the truism that people generally do like to get together in the real world.

The thing is, interaction in the virtual world creates new possibilities. People are reporting that more people – or more of the right people – can be involved in discussions and decisions than would otherwise be the case in an office meeting room.

When you learn the habits of more dynamic and purposeful interaction using the range of technology tools, rather than filling your days with Zoom meetings, work is more productive and fulfilling. And people often report getting to know their colleagues better, particularly their bosses, in the more humanising setting of their own homes.

We can have intense collaborative focus, wherever we are working, and in doing so accelerate the speed to decision and save a whole heap of time in the process

Another version of old-world thinking is to recommend, as I’ve seen in one piece of company guidance on hybrid working recently, that home is better for solo focus work, and the office better for collaboration. Is that really true?

It’s time to rethink completely our assumptions about focus and collaboration. Working on live documents together – routine for most new entrants to the workforce now – and analysing live data on dashboards, represent step changes from the old cycle of doing solo work, passing it on to others, having a meeting, revise, rinse and repeat. We can have intense collaborative focus, wherever we are working, and in doing so accelerate the speed to decision and save a whole heap of time in the process.

When people “go back to the office” (as they say), I think we’ll see things start to turn around.

In time, people will start to judge the constraints, limitations and failings of the office against the merits of working in smarter ways. Hopefully this will have the effect of putting on more pressure to transform and upgrade workplace environments for the needs of 21st century working.

3) Don’t fall for the trope that homeworking = isolation, burnout, boredom and mental collapse

Over the past few months there has been a deluge of articles quoting new “research”. If we pay attention to the source, we find the research is:

  • From office furniture suppliers, saying how homeworkers are desperate to go back to the office
  • From coworking advocates, saying how isolated homeworkers are – and how they need the benefits of working in coworking spaces
  • From providers of psychometric software, saying how homeworking is leading to more stress and burnout, and how HR needs to get on top of this (with their software)
  • From suppliers of a dubious cannabinoid supplement saying how stressed home-based workers are, and that they have the (snake-oil?) solution for it. (I didn’t make that up!)

Sadly, many articles are just uncritically regurgitated press releases. Always check the source!

I think we’ve reached a depressing moment in human history if the best antidote to boredom is to spend more time at the office

At a recent conference there was a presentation on boredom amongst homeworkers. Interesting topic, based on more objective research than those I’ve mentioned above. But I think we’ve reached a depressing moment in human history if the best antidote to boredom is to spend more time at the office, as all their recommendations involved. Can we not be a bit more creative?

How about using some of the time saved from commuting and the generally greater control over work schedules to create space for doing something more interesting? Reading a book. Playing an instrument. Going for a nature walk. Learning a language. Talking to a neighbour. Spending more time with the family. Maybe even developing a new business idea, interacting online with a colleague we wouldn’t normally meet.

This personal development is something employers and colleagues can actively promote, support and take pleasure in as we share experiences.

The thing is, most of the research over the past 30 years points to people working from home being pretty happy to do so. Overall they report greater productivity, improved work-life balance and pleasure in not commuting.

And it’s not like people never report being unhappy, bored or isolated at the collective workplace. After all, it’s the place from which most complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination are generated. For introverts, the office may be a daily nightmare and the much-lauded social interaction a form of daily torture.

Of course, some people do experience issues they struggle with at home. However, we need to remember the “great work from home experiment” has been a very untypical and narrow experience of working smarter.

Working full-time from home during a time of national emergency, locked down and isolated from neighbours, friends and wider family, it’s natural to feel somewhat disconnected. But that disconnection is as much to do with the wider social context as anything to do with the work.

This will change in time. Moving forward into a post-pandemic world, we have the possibility to exercise greater choice about who and what we are connecting with and disconnecting from.

We need to value the extended workplace for its own merits and create better work

From all this, you might think I’m a dyed-in-the-wool homeworking evangelist. But I’m not at all. I’m as much excited by the new possibilities for better quality workplaces as I am for the the new design of homes. For me it’s all about having the business choices, blended as far as possible with personal preferences. The aim is to work wherever is most appropriate to get the best results, and have the best work experience.

For some this may be the collective workplace. For others it will be home, or a public place, or a flexible third-party space, or going full digital nomad from wherever in the world.

What we shouldn’t be doing is setting the constraining norms of traditional working as the touchstone to judge everything else. Employers should not be setting artificial constraints, like having a fixed number of days of the week in the office, regardless of the nature of the work being done.

Instead we should be pushing the boundaries of what is possible to make work better, using all the capabilities of the extended workplace and the new technology tools at our disposal. This may take us out of our comfort zone – but shouldn’t we be ready to do that? Let’s innovate, experiment, take the leap, and embrace the New Abnormal!