Don’t panic about defining the ‘new normal’

Everyone’s talking about when employees should return to the office. Who will work at home? How will it affect business? Will people feel part of a team?

We’re facing pressure to answer these questions and to tell staff and stakeholders something, anything, to clarify the situation. Under normal circumstances a decent internal communicator would verify what we want people to do before embarking on any communications activity – what outcome we’re looking for. But what happens if you don’t know yet?

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you came to me for communications support right now without a clear vision, but that doesn’t stop us doing something meaningful. We can still set intentions without a clear goal.

Before doing this though, please take a moment – for your own wellbeing if nothing else – to reflect on three things.

This has never happened before.

All aspects of our lives have been thrown up into the air by the pandemic and we have no idea where they will (or should) land. We have a pressing sense that we should try to control what happens next. There are many positive opportunities to seize – the prospect of more genuine flexible working for one – but there are no rulebooks for this situation and very little relevant experience to draw upon. Therefore, we need to accept that we’re doing our best and that we’re making decisions for the right reasons. We might take wrong turns and that’s ok.

We need to recover first.

We have all been through A LOT. The pandemic has affected us greatly, both personally and professionally, and nobody should underestimate that. We shouldn’t rush this next part. Rebecca Seal, journalist and author of ‘SOLO – How To Work Alone (And Not Lose Your Mind)’ emphasises the need for us to recover as individuals, organisations and nations. While economic recovery is of course important, the focus needs to shift more towards how we recover mentally and emotionally. “This is not a time for making big decisions,” Rebecca said to me recently. If it’s not a time for making big decisions, why are we pressing employees to tell us how they want to work in six months’ time?

There is no such thing as a new normal.

Talking about a ‘new normal’ is like saying we will eventually find one new way of living and working that is perfect for everyone. But we’re all different and we’re always changing. Human beings are predictable in some ways but they’re also wonderfully unpredictable in others. We can never know exactly how people will respond or how a culture will evolve and there’s something I find very refreshing about that. We can use communication techniques to nudge, encourage and inspire people to behave in certain ways – we can even enforce behaviours through policy and procedure – but nobody can say how things will look and feel at a specific date in the future. So why try to define it now?

My advice is to take the pressure off. Openly acknowledge your own and your team’s need for recovery first. See the next few months as a learning opportunity: keep the lines of conversation open between people at all levels, maintain a strong sense of what matters and constantly respect one another. If your intentions are right and you communicate clearly, you’ll find good things happening (at which point I’ll let you decide whether to announce your arrival at the ‘new normal’).

To talk to me further about how this works in reality, drop me an email or connect with me on LinkedIn.

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