The “New” Normal to the “Now” Normal and Back Again
What is “normal”? Specifically, what is work normal? Where does work end and life begin, or is there any difference? To some people, “normal” is a one-hour train ride from a suburban residential community to a bustling metropolis some simply refer to as “The City.” To others, it’s enduring a teeth-gritting, white-knuckle traffic jam that seems to occur at any hour of the day…every day. To others still, it's a cup of coffee in pajama pants down the hall from the room in which they just awoke. Maybe the dining table, where last night's family meal took place, is now the hub of a multi-million-dollar enterprise. If you are one of the lucky ones, you perhaps have a room dedicated complete with standup desk, VoIP phone, and dual monitors. Any way we look at it, “normal” is just not normal anymore.
Over a 10-day period, I spoke with over 20 senior leaders from a variety of companies on a national level. The audience reigned from larger companies like Cisco, E&Y, Nike, Google, Business Insider and Bloomberg to smaller 50-125 person shops. We connected using various virtual forums: GoogleMeets, phone calls, Zoom meetings, whichever form of communication people prefer to use these days. My topic: Is the future of the workspace remote?
My purpose began with gathering some advice on how to manage a few things, but as I started talking to people, I realized that many people have just been plunged into uncharted waters without a map or a compass. There is a lot of confusion out there. My goal is to provide a summary of their perspectives, give you some guidance from my point of view and a lot of reassurance. You are NOT in this alone and there are MANY people swimming in these uncharted waters with you. There is a light at the end of this, and although it seems distant right now, the darkest nights are when stars shine their brightest.
For simplicity’s sake, I have taken the many quotes I received from people and organized most of them into a list format. You’ll see many trends.
What do we know right now?
There is a past, a present, and a future ...of sorts. The one true thing that I have found is that nobody really knows anything about what the future holds, how, when or if we will show up in our office ever again. In fact, consensus suggests no one even knows what “normal” really is any more. One thing we do know is that our lives are being split into two dimensions: Pre-COVID-19 and Post-COVID-19. Our elaborate offices with their purposefully designed open pod office seating, ping-pong tables, guitar hero, kegerators, baristas and bottomless catered meals are quickly becoming but a memory. One from the not too distant past, but what seems like a lifetime ago. Our present is the walls around our dwelling, that same view out the same window and the shortest commute most of us have ever taken in recent history. We know we are here now and will be for the foreseeable future. Some never thought we would be in this nearly entirely virtual world, but here we are.
Do you currently have remote teams?
When I asked this, the short and simple answer was “Yes. I’ve been managing remote teams for years.” My audience immediately referenced their globalized teams overseas in Singapore, Ukraine, India, Latin America and many other countries. Within the technology arena, having a globalized team working remotely is relatively common. People have been managing these teams for many years and have been quite successful in doing so.
What about the team members that are in the same state or even city as you, let alone the US? I found that “yes” to this question was less common. Maybe a staff in another Corporate office in a different state, but only a few managed that lone employee in their house in South Carolina. Why is this? The common answer, “I don’t really know.” “If we were going to hire within the US, they should be local and come into the office.”
Why should someone be required to come into “the office?” What biases do we have about “working in the office” than we do about “working from home?” Some considerations – look back in history – it was about dressing for the job, making the commute, packing a lunch. Water coolers and cafeterias, drinks after work. There was a strong bias for many many years that the true professional is the one who puts on a suit, takes an elevator to a glass walled office only to talk on the phone all day. And the embedded bias in our culture about those who “work from home” was that “working from home” was lazy, slacking, playing hooky. It was watching TV while working, eating snacks all day, sleeping in and cutting out early. All inaccurate, but there is an entire culture worth getting into just from this one sentiment. An undercurrent for why the change is so hard for some and so easy for others.
What we know as “the workday” has changed perhaps forever. The present version of getting to work on time is making sure we are somewhat presentable for our morning video call with teammates, bosses, peers, clients, and colleagues. The morning video call from home was once reserved for those proven leaders with years of tenure who had proven they could get the job done from anywhere. Even this privilege was only two or three days a week. But that was Pre-COVID.
The change from before to after happened…quickly! Some companies loosely planned the possibility of a few weeks of a remote culture to help flatten a curve. That was in February or early March 2020. Forward a mere two months later and many businesses closed their doors and shut down their spaces to non-essential workers for the remainder of 2020 with a hope (and maybe even a prayer) that in early 2021, employees might make their way back into their office on a voluntary basis. Mind you, I am writing this in June 2020. Early 2021 is over 7 months out and we have been remote for more than three months now. Those three months were roughly 64 business days, encompassed 100% of Spring, and for some was considered long term planning. Some simple math and you now see where this is heading: remote is here for the unforeseeable future. We have no idea how long this will last, but for some it could be years. For Twitter, it may be forever. Some “essential workers'' are back, working in rotating groups, with stringent health checks, personal questionnaires, diary entries on activities and constant monitoring. IT (Info Tech) may never have to come back again.
So, are people craving a return to the office?
The general census is this: other than a lack of personal connection, the majority of people are actually thriving and extremely appreciative of the opportunity to finally work remotely. Are we starting to see a true cultural shift?
There are many people I spoke to that actually like their jobs BETTER now! They don’t have to listen to that annoying person on the phone or use the public restroom.
Do you miss your commute?
I had to ask this question. A few people only walked a few blocks. Others...
When are you returning to your office?
This is where the mass confusion has set in. Rarely do people enjoy living in a state of uncertainty, but this truth is 100% uncertain for all. After speaking to people representing over 20 companies ranging from Fortune 50 to small businesses, not a single person knew a definitive answer to this question. There are speculative ideas that might solve issues on coming back, but even these solutions raise plenty of questions and hesitations. Are you going back to an office any time soon or at all?
As you can see, there is a lot of uncertainty as to when, who or how we are heading back “to work” anytime soon. No, you’re not the only one wondering what is happening in those glass skyrises. One thing is for sure, lots of cleaning!
How are you staying connected with your teams?
This is pretty simple and straightforward. The most common ones are:
Ironically, companies already had all of this technology in place and have been accustomed to using them for years. Why did we decide to just start really using it now?
What are the challenges of being remote?
There are advantages and disadvantages to everything. We need to understand the challenges that people face in order to overcome obstacles and provide a solution. The bottom-line challenge here is that people require human interaction. Everybody needs connection with other human beings, and everyone strives for and hopes for connection. An infant needs to be loved and cared for during a long period of time if it’s to develop normally. Infants who are not held and touched will die. This need for connection continues throughout our lives. It is epitomized by the concept of romantic love, the one person who will devote their life to us and make us feel complete. In some cultures romantic love doesn’t exist, it’s replaced by the love of relatives, friends, and tribe. Some people rarely experience love, but they have many ways of feeling a connection with others – in the community or in the workplace. The need to feel connected is characteristic of all human beings. When we remove this essential human need, we are inviting a whole new set of challenges unrelated to the working world.
When taking challenges into consideration, we need to look at people’s personal settings and family situations. Do they have children that are home practicing distance learning while they work? Are they also the teacher now? Do they have a roommate who is a musician and practices during the day while he/she is at work? Do they even have a space at home to actually work? Do they have the necessary technology to stay connected? The list of potential obstacles can be overwhelming…frustrating…without any reprieve.
As I was speaking to people, I saw numerous children playing or passing through in the background. I saw people remove the cat from their desk or shoo away their dog who was looking for attention. I got to meet a number of people’s spouses and kids while getting a front-row seat into a number of living rooms and kitchens. Everyone’s situation is different. I also saw people with home offices that would rival a hedge fund CEO. I saw a crowded kitchen table complete with leftover breakfast and a child’s art project. Personally, I have a completely separate room detached from the house that is quiet and private. I am one of the lucky ones. The Very Lucky Ones.
Setting these situations aside, everyone has some core challenges they see:
Challenges can be endless. The largest of them again is the lack of human connection, creativity, or effective workspaces. With that said, however, I found people to be pretty optimistic.
What are the advantages of working and running remote teams?
Talk about an energy shift. I heard many contradictions and corrections to the concerns listed above. Many people followed up their challenge with an empathetic “yea, but…” and had immediate solutions to combat them. Like our challenges, everyone’s personal situation is different.
The number one answer is obviously NO MORE COMMUTE. It’s simple, the more time “living” or “working” over transitioning from one place to another the better.
The positive impact on working in a remote setting was refreshing to hear.
The common denominator here was around health and overall happiness with real work and life balance, plus access to a ton of talented people. Last time I looked, we weren’t brought into this world to spend 75% of our lives “working”. It's great to see some smiles on people’s faces.
Yes, there are still some stubborn ones that believe “unless you’re in an office, you’re not working”; but, I wonder about who their employees are and what their management style really is. Why is it required though? Are you trying to tell me over the last three months that your employees have done nothing but sit around and play video games? Call me new school, but I don’t buy it. Some of my highest earning and happiest years were working remotely 4 days a week.
How can we thrive while remote?
“The hard workers will always work and the people that required micromanagement did the bare bones minimum to just keep their job anyway.” As a CEO, I don’t have time to micromanage my staff, but more importantly, I don’t believe in doing so. I thrive on watching my team take on challenges and flourish, invent, adapt, and grow. They are more organized than they have ever been! There are plenty of challenges and plenty of advantages to our current situation, but why live in the dark ages? The heart of the question is “are you willing to live in the solution?” There are plenty of solutions to thrive and keep your teams connected. Here are some general ideas from various sources to start with. Hint: make it fun and not forced.
There are a number of personality quizzes out there and I would highly recommend you and your teams take them to find out how people need to be managed and communicated with as individuals. Do you know your DISC profile? Do you know how to speak to your employees so they can really process the information you're giving them? Most of the time it’s not the message but the delivery of the message. How do people want to be rewarded? Do they crave words of affirmation, physical connection, quality time or gifts? What are their top needs as a human being? Do they need a sense of certainty and steadiness or do they thrive on variety? Do they need to feel significant? How much of a connection and what kinds do they really need?
As a whole, a lot of companies have seen their production increase dramatically, mostly because we’ve gained a few working hours by not commuting. However, it's not like we have a controlled experiment to compare to during these circumstances. Also, we are all going through the same sort of things right now, so harping on your staff is not the best way to get the best out of them nor to build any type of loyalty.
Are you hiring while remote?
For the most part, the business hasn’t stopped. We paused, panicked, went to our room and closed the door. But then, we stepped out, got dressed and now, we are ready to get the wheels rolling again. In brief, answers were “YES! We are definitely hiring, but onboarding is a challenge.” Most of the people I spoke to have hired and managed remote teams before, so this is no different for them. What I’ve found is that people who are the stubborn ones are the ones that struggle with this. “There is no way I’m hiring anyone without meeting them first.”
Okay, I understand your philosophy, but what is your solution to this during a global pandemic? If you’re stuck on “company culture”, then you’re stuck. Let’s start thinking and communicating creatively. Ask yourself:
Some solution-oriented ideas:
There are hundreds of solutions to hiring someone while remote. Many companies have built incredible teams and are 100% distributed. “Culture” can’t be your default reasoning. Adapt or get left behind. It’s time to accept that for the immediate future, you are here. It's time to embrace the change and adapt to Post-COVID. You don’t need to love it, but maybe you didn’t want to stay at home for the entire month of April 2020 either. If you’re reading this, you have done just fine. You’ve survived, or maybe even better than that. It's time to move forward!
What is “normal” now?
This is a huge word. Any interest in unpacking this concept of normal and normalcy? Check out these different synonyms: orderly, natural, regular, routine, traditional. Maybe “normal” is the last thing we need. Maybe we don’t need orderly, routine and traditional, but rather creative, spontaneous and modern? Is back again really where we want to be going or are we re-defining normal at its core?
We know we need to keep moving forward and adapting. There are risks and rewards. There are upsides and downsides. There are questions and confusion. However, these are all the same set of issues that we’ve encountered our entire lives! Just because they’ve been magnified doesn’t mean they are bigger than before; it just means that they are now front and center. I’m sure you never loathed sitting in traffic, always ran on time daily, took time for daily self-care, helped your kids with their homework every night, and had a family dinner all while you were the most productive self you could imagine pre-COVID. Don’t worry, you weren’t alone.
Achievement is a science. Fulfillment is an art. You may never get this time back again. We all have a list of things we would have done differently prior to March 2020. Now is the time to make the changes necessary to thrive and achieve for whatever the future holds for us. It's time to live in the present, not dwell in the past. Don’t long for the summer of 2019, embrace the summer of 2020. This wasn’t on your vision board, but perhaps it’s time for a new vision! There is a light. After speaking to this incredibly generous audience, one thing is for sure, we really are ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
It bears quoting again, the darkest nights are when stars shine their brightest.
If you would like to dive into any of these ideas or others you have in more detail, you are welcome to reach out to me anytime. Thank you all for everything you do to make the world a better place. One day at a time, we will all shine a little brighter.
For the record, no I didn’t get a chance to interview Mother Nature to find out what her plan is. I think I’m in the queue though.
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