Opinion | 22 September 2020

The new normal is a myth

Henry France 800

Henry France

Head of Strategy

Tags: Strategy

The new normal is a myth hero

Like the words ‘these are unprecedented times’ are overly used to describe the Coronavirus pandemic, the phrase ‘the new normal’ has come to define our post-COVID world. But there is no new normal, argues Henry France, our Head of Strategy. Instead it’s going to be abnormal and we humans will have no choice but to adapt.

Several months ago (right at the start of lockdown) I took part in a webinar to discuss the ways in which marketing teams could use their time and resource to continue to be motivated during lockdown. I talked openly about how historical markers indicated that when lockdown was over there would be a short period of adjustment, and people would snap back to normal as if nothing had really changed.

But things have moved on and not quite as predictably as the ‘experts’ first thought. I’m not going to do a complete 180 on my early lockdown view because, if recent behaviour is anything to go by, people have absolutely fallen back into old habits and routines quickly as the social distancing measures eased. However, I do think that this crisis will have some substantial knock on effects that will encourage new habits, accelerate change in adoption of technology and break down some long-standing stigmas over working culture and behaviours. Together, these changes will not create a new normal, but a new abnormal. It will only be normal for those that grow up in it. And we humans have no choice but to adapt as the pandemic shapes the world around us.

The workplace but not as we know it

Some change in working culture has been needed for a while, it’s been there, bubbling away in the background, but never truly taken up or used in earnest. For example, Anna Whitehouse of Mother Pukka has been campaigning for flexible working for all since 2015. One positive from the lockdown is that it’s pushed remote and flexible working firmly under the noses of thousands of organisations who simply had no choice but to allow their people to work from home. The #flexappeal campaign, supported by Sir Robert Alpine, wants “a working world that doesn’t ask for ‘commitment to the job’ over commitments - to a child, to a parent with Alzheimer’s, to a person. That doesn’t question doctor’s appointments or invisible disabilities. That raises parents as they raise the next generation. [I] want a workplace that is human not inhumane.” It’s a belief backed by Distinction and many other brands that recognise working culture must change.

But, as we're encouraged back to the office to boost the economy and support wellbeing, our working lives have to adapt and do so quickly. The concept of a contactless pathway has been introduced recently which tries to ensure that along a typical office route there is minimal physical interaction with any touch points likely to spread germs. Using conventional and new touch-free technologies, the concept hopes to reduce any further spikes in Coronavirus outbreaks.

The world outside the office is not immune to the need to adapt quickly. As we see entire shopping giants redefine the way that stores are laid out and used, right down to how jeans are folded, it’s not inconceivable to imagine a world in which contactless pathways become the norm rather than exception. The BBC’s piece on how COVID will affect our office and home lives is a thoroughly fascinating ‘walk in the shoes’ experience. But whilst it’s about a completely fictional person, we can already see that some of the changes they depict five years hence are coming into effect now. We’ll see staggered working times, predominant home working with going into the (six feet) office being the exception rather than the rule, and the move to as little contact with public touchpoints as possible. Facial recognition has typically been used as nothing more than a bit of a gimmick to unlock your phone or change your appearance in a social app but could now be your key to the office. It’s unlikely that after COVID passes, the forays into these areas will dissipate. Facebook’s AR/VR mixed reality workplace concept might not be a distant ‘minority report’ dream but a reality sooner rather than later.

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A QR code is your key to the office in a contactless pathway

Thinking about these contactless pathways and as someone that would consider themselves as a very tactile person, I’m finding it hard not to physically greet my friends and family as I would normally. An enormous bearhug from my Dad can really change my mood and outlook in all honesty. And a literal slap on the back from a colleague during some office banter goes a long way to boost me on a difficult day. But we all know that these distancing measures are here to stay for a little while yet and the new abnormal will need us to be more communicative with our words than with our body language. Whilst the extrovert part of me will die a little inside, I must concentrate on what I say rather than how I say it.

Remote working is here to stay

Whilst we found it relatively straightforward at Distinction to shift the workforce to be entirely remote as lockdown kicked in, this burden of change has been felt far heavier in businesses across the world as they scrambled to implement infrastructures and remote working patterns. Now, almost seven months later, there's been a realisation that working remotely is not as bad as first thought by those businesses reluctant to sanction a remote workforce up until now. Almost all US Knowledge Workers want to work remotely. This will have a huge impact on the decisions to be made in the near future around office size, number of people, IT infrastructure, security and recruitment to name but a few. But as we move forward into previously unknown environments and cultural change, there are some things that critically should remain the same.

Accidental collaboration and ideation

Some of the world’s most well-known products, services and original ideas have been born out of chance interactions. Gmail springs immediately to mind. On a recent conference I learned that this particular Google product was born from two Google program managers, previously unknown to each other, chatting in line for their coffee about how email could be improved. These chance inspirational conversations are still needed; the world needs original thought and collaboration to continue and some would argue that you cannot foster this over Zoom. Whilst the move to remote working teams marches with increasing velocity towards us, we must remember that great working relationships, original thought and great collaboration is often born from physical and chance meetings. We cannot forget that and must not let it go.

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Will coffee breaks ever be the same again?

Positive working cultures will be more important than ever

This is a big topic but to keep it simple, we’re in danger of letting culture slip or even disappear if we’re to exist purely as digital avatars that only talk to others when there’s a work related question. We cannot allow people to be left feeling isolated, unheard and wholly disengaged from work. It will ultimately affect bottom line.

And disengagement is costly. In studies by the Queens School of Business and by the Gallup Organization, disengaged workers had 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, and 60% more errors and defects. In organizations with low employee engagement scores, they experienced 18% lower productivity, 16% lower profitability, 37% lower job growth, and 65% lower share price over time. Importantly, businesses with highly engaged employees enjoyed 100% more job applications.

Source: Positive work cultures are more productive, Harvard Business Review

Humanising your brand

This sounds a little ‘buzzwordy’ but the brands that come out of the crisis (and the inbound recession thereafter) best will be the ones that demonstrate that there are real people making the decisions that we see as consumers. Brands whose advertising and marketing teams make the most of the situations they find themselves in by relating to and empathising with their audience will thrive. Those that blindly shove inappropriate messaging down our throats because sales are being hit will not live to tell the tale. Everyone is being hit, some admittedly in far worse ways than others. But it always pays to do the right thing and stick to your values.

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Be kind

Wellbeing in the workplace

Mental wellbeing of employees was, is and always will be the most important factor when deciding on working patterns and culture. Just because all teams have become remote it doesn’t stop individuals feeling isolated. Leadership, management and HR teams must do more than they did pre-COVID to ensure that employees feel cared for by their colleagues, managers and business owners. I’ve already eluded to a positive working culture and, at Distinction, we have just that, but this goes deeper than merely recognising good work. A recent study suggests more than 500,000 people are expected to experience mental health issues as a result of COVID-19. These people, the many others that won’t say anything and the millions of others that struggle with mental health every day should be given extra time, extra consideration and even more encouragement than before. It’s vital that we look after each other in the new abnormal. Be more human.

Whilst we’re unsure as to what the future holds in our new reality, we can be sure that it will come with new challenges whilst combating ones we were dealing with before March. There isn’t going to be a new normal, it will feel distinctly abnormal to us. It will continue to feel very uncomfortable for some and whether you’re ready for it or not, the changes that will be pressed upon your business, your brand and your colleagues could be the catalyst for change that was desperately needed. Lean into it, learn from it, hope for the best and embrace the future. It might change things so radically you do not recognise your own job. If that’s the case, you need to think about what you do and how you do it in our new post-pandemic world.

If you’d like to talk about how the post-COVID world is affecting you and your digital strategies, get in touch. Or reach out to me on Twitter.