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.

Collaboration Even Successful in Nature

In Shawn Achor’s latest book, Big Potential, he starts off with a story of lightning bugs in the mangroves of Southeast Asia.  This particular variation of lightning bug (Photinus Carolinus) synchronize their flashes to increase the likelihood of finding a mate.  Flashing alone, fireflies have a 3% chance of finding a mate, but by synchronizing, that probability rises to an astonishing 82%.  This is a simple example of how nature understands that working together collectively and collaboratively leads to greater combined success of the group and the individual.  This same phenomenon can enhance individual performance in organizations through collaboration that drives mutual success leading to personal growth.

By the way, in nature, this also causes a spectacular sight when the entire forest lights up at the same time with the lightening bug synchronization.

While, in this instance, nature figured out that collaboration produces better results than competition, it is counter intuitive to our beliefs or how we are raised that this could be possible for humans.  We continue to believe that we need to shine above everyone else to gain the spotlight.  This belief starts early in our lives and has been around for generations; however, it has been proven, through studies, that over time this obsession with being #1 has strengthened and has had a negative impact on true cooperation and ultimately both personal and organizational performance.

Companies continue to maintain “cooperation”, “collaboration” and “team work” in their corporate values slides; however, establish measurements that are counter to these statements.  For instance, it is very common for a challenge to be created along the lines of “the first team to achieve $100M in revenue receives a special bonus”.  On the surface, this may seem like friendly competition to drive both teams to strive harder to reach the $100M target.  But what if by cooperating the teams could have achieved $200M more quickly or even $250M by identifying additional synergies?

Throughout my career, I have seen examples on both sides of this equation – individualism undermining potential success and true collaboration driving greater success.  While maybe not flashing in 100% synchronization as the Southeast Asia lightning bugs, the teams operate toward common success and support the value of team strength.

In one instance, I was lucky enough to be part of an organization that grew revenues 7X in 4 years.  Additionally, we went from operating at a loss to significant operating margins.  While there were many reasons for this growth – great people, strong market and a leading product, other regions had many of these same elements, but lacked the level of collaboration that we created in our region.  While the corporate culture was more cut throat, we were lucky enough to be a remote region and isolated from that divisive atmosphere.  We knew that we wanted to deliver the highest corporate results, what we often referred to as “big bags of cash” to corporate (in the form of operating margin), and we had our style to drive that success.  Being in the Americas region and part of a UK based company, we were considered “cowboys”.

Our team was built with diverse core capabilities that could operate in unison to continue to deliver sustainable successful weeks, months and quarters.  4 key elements of the culture we built were –

  • Respect – the foundational core value that everything else layered on was respect. We listened to each other’s inputs, exchanged ideas and accepted constructive advice for improvement. Once organizations lose respect within their teams, the core will begin to crumble and put it in a downward spiral.
  • Commitment – each member of the team was committed to achieving our greater purpose and ended up with seeing significant opportunities for their personal growth. The team also experienced personal joy of collaborating.
  • Team Results – by setting a collective team target, made up of a combination of the individual goals with clear responsibilities, the team worked together. Even if an individual focused solely on achieving their personal targets, they may achieve that particular goal, but wouldn’t be specifically recognized until the collective target was achieved.
  • Accountability – as we worked toward the team targets/goals, there was a level of holding each other accountable as well as ourselves individually. Based on having a core value of respect, this was managed in a professional manner, but the reality was that everyone wanted to perform to support the team.

As you build out the culture of your company and team, remember the phenomenal increase in success that the lightning bugs in the mangroves of Southeast Asia achieved by collaborating and operating in unison.  I know you will see significant results.

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