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Can’t be the new normal

Because of COVID, every day we hear about how we are now working in the “new normal” and must adjust our daily routines.  The articles and conversations are as if this is a given and we simply need to adjust.  However, I believe there are many impacts to people, society and business performance that we can’t simply accept as the new normal.

The aspect of the new normal that I am referencing here is that Work from Home (WFH) will now be the new standard.  I understand many people have been doing this for much of their careers and don’t understand why people consider the concept of WFH being a challenge.  My perspective is that there are certain positions or even people’s personalities that can operate in this model; however, it isn’t for everyone, every position, or every stage in one’s career.

My initial premise is that humans are social beings and need interaction with others.  During these prolonged periods of remoteness, people are being deprived of this basic human need.  We look to technology to help in times of this pandemic, but it should be used as a tool to bridge us to the non-pandemic future versus calling it the new normal.

Here are a few examples of why I believe this extended new WFH “normal” is negative:

Collaboration and Innovation – There is a lot of new technology that is being leveraged today in an attempt to personalize meetings; however, Zoom meetings and attempts to leverage online whiteboarding capabilities, don’t take the place of collecting in a room and having a collaboration/innovation session.  Personal interactions, stealing the marker from someone to enhance their ideas, and the energy generated can’t be replaced online.  In face to face meetings, people feel more compelled to be engaged.  When working in an online environment, people tend to multitask, address emails or other urgent issues during the time set aside for the dedicated meeting.  This occurs in face to face meetings as well, but the tendency has picked up during this period of isolation.

Casual Interactions – Impromptu casual interaction is nearly eliminated in WFH settings.  Random office chats that provide the much-needed break from the daily work are now replaced with the potential to engage with the family.  Though this family engagement is a positive aspect to WFH, it doesn’t provide the same level of psychological escape and can actually cause additional stress.  While these casual chats in the hallway may be distractions, the separation from sitting/standing at our desk, is important to close out issues that may not be considered critical enough to set up an Outlook meeting.   Spontaneous chats and random interactions provide reasons for periodic breaks.  These breaks are needed to keep your mind focused.  Separation from the computer provides a break from a particular work item and provides additional time for more creative encounters

Networking – I have always been a strong proponent of networking, especially for people who are early in their careers or new to their companies.  While I am much later in my career than others, it’s more difficult in today’s world for people to network and expand their visibility within the company.  For example, previously, you were able to take advantage of the casual interaction mentioned above to introduce yourself to someone that you believe can help with your success.  These impromptu encounters are very unlikely to happen in the WFH environment because the probability of getting 10 minutes on someone’s calendar for this type of engagement is unlikely.

Companies need to take every precaution to keep their employees safe; however, part of the balance needs to be on understanding the psychological impact and well-being of their organization.  Organizations need to encourage new ways of working in this current environment to address the underlying challenges; however, we can’t accept this as the new normal.  While this pandemic has impacted the way we will do business forever, we can’t allow ourselves to operate as if the pandemic is forever.  As I write this, there is encouraging information that vaccinations with start within the coming days, and life may get back to normal in the next 6 months.

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