Op-Ed:

Back to Normal?

In March of 2020, the world was forced to change at a breathtaking pace. Most offices and non-essential workplaces closed, and millions of employees began working from home – almost overnight. A year later, people yearn for a return to normal, and the availability of safe and effective vaccines makes it feel like that return is on the near horizon. But after such a disruptive year, will a return to work really be a return to normal? We have been discussing ‘the new normal’ since the Great Recession in 2008. Is it finally time to acknowledge that a return to normal is no longer possible?

The Workplace May Never Be the Same

Make no mistake – the pandemic has changed us. For many people, the isolation and uncertainty have caused not just short-term mental health issues, but also long-term change in preferences and expectations, both in positive and negative ways.

Between 30% and 50% of the general population is introverted 1. Traditional workplaces, with the associated mandatory gatherings, gossip and crowds of coworkers tucked into cubicles, naturally favor extroverts. The pandemic and the increase in working from home gave introverts an opportunity to focus on their work without the exhaustion of forced interactions with their coworkers. Is it any surprise that a recent survey found that 54% of people would like to continue working from home even after the pandemic 2?

Another positive psychological impact of the pandemic and remote work is the discovery that remote, flexible workers tend to be happier and more loyal employees, because working from home has been shown to provide more time for hobbies and improve personal relationships, among other things 3. We have also realized that we can do many tasks remotely that we previously thought could only be done on-site. We’ve been pushed to adopt new technology at an unprecedented pace.

As the workplace returns to something akin to normalcy, managers should be aware of this change in work dynamics and be less stringent about employees spending their full workweek in the office. The net result will be higher employee retention and higher morale.

We must acknowledge, however, that for some employees, the workplace is actually less stressful than their home environment, where they may be juggling family dynamics, housework, childcare, etc. on top of their work responsibilities 4 . And while stress related to the job itself has actually decreased, 69% of workers say COVID has produced the most stressful time of their career and that they are worried about the economy and job security 5. It’s not the work, but the blurring of the boundaries between home and work that has increased stress. Changes in our working hours have even caused disruption of circadian rhythms with workers now being more likely to work late into the night and get a later start in the morning 4.

In helping your employees deal with these new stressors, minimize uncertainty by putting into place action-oriented strategies that focus on things you and your employees can control (like spending), and disregard the things that are out of their control (like government responses). Researchers and mental health practitioners have suggested rethinking stress so that it can be a positive catalyst for change and be a source of motivation to get actions done 6.

A New Way of Communicating

As our innate search for communication and connection with others moved to online forums and social media platforms, conversations around a water cooler with people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds gave way to virtual communities that reinforced only a single belief. These communication ‘bubbles’ led to deeply entrenched beliefs (including many false beliefs). Divisive messages from political leaders and media outlets interested in pandering to only a single faction during this same period made this phenomenon even stronger. The resulting tribalism is likely to remain for some time. While many people were happy to lose office politics, they found an unhealthy replacement.

For some, these limitations in human connection have led to improvement in their communication skills so that they are more concise, precise and direct 7, but in general this leads to briefer, less in-depth, less exploratory conversations. There is less time to think and reflect, leading to more transactional interactions and decisions 8. If you hired in 2020, you know that these transactional interactions have made onboarding new employees dramatically more difficult and reduced important social interactions in the office 9. Two-thirds of workers who began teleworking all or most of the time during the pandemic say they feel less connected to their coworkers now 2 .

The inability to interact with others who think differently than we do has also led to the politicization of common-sense public health measures and increased resistance to vaccinations. Before the pandemic, many employers imposed health requirements on employees such as mandatory flu vaccinations, non-smoking policies and even the use of fitness trackers. Now, however, despite two-thirds of employers indicating the vaccine is very or somewhat necessary for business continuity, only 3% of companies plan to require the COVID-19 vaccine 10 11. Whether this ‘health freedom’ movement gains any permanent traction remains to be seen. As managers, you and your boards need to consider whether or not a virus that shut down the world economy for a full year is more important to get control of than smoking, obesity or the flu.

Wellness and Environmental Impact

Because we’ve been forced to face an all-consuming health crisis, wellness is now at top of mind. For example, we’ve seen a drastic change in attitudes around calling in to work because of illness. Before, it was almost a badge of honor to go to work regardless of whether you were sick or not. Now it is seen as something that puts your coworkers in danger and threatens productivity across the board. As employees become more willing to stay home when they're not well, managers need to remove the stigma and understand that it is in the best interests of the organization to keep infectious people out of the office. This is another way that the option to work from home can minimize the effect of these precautionary out-of-office days.

US companies saved USD 30 billion per day allowing employees to work from home 3 during the pandemic, and simultaneously productivity increased 2.4% 12. The reduced travel and reduced need for commercial real estate had positive environmental side effects as well. It is not often in the business world that costs go down while productivity goes up. Returning to ‘normal’ would reverse these trends.

Changes in Personal Space

Much like we made the shift to personal hygiene in the late 1800s and started washing hands, taking baths, creating clean sources of drinking water and using flush toilets, the pandemic will likely permanently shift the psychology of social distancing. In many Asian countries, mask wearing has been standard since the bird flu pandemic in the early 2000s. Many around the world are now likely to wear masks in crowded public spaces even after the pandemic is under control. We can expect a persistent fear of proximity to others, with 70% of people currently being reluctant to return to activities like riding subways, being in crowded elevators or going to crowded indoor dining/bars 12. This will doubtless have an effect on how workers interact in the office and with external business associates. The handshake might be a thing of the past.

Expectations for Future Workplace Flexibility

In response to our changing culture, we are seeing a shift in attitudes about how work is accomplished. Employees who travel extensively for work may feel that the time and money spent on travel is an unnecessary part of the job now that technology has shown us that we can perform the same tasks without the travel.

Before the pandemic, working remotely was generally viewed negatively, with managers estimating work-at-home employees were 12% less productive, and only 20% of people were allowed to work from home most or all the time. The pandemic has increased that latter group to 71% 2. With actual realized gains in productivity and many more people having experienced remote employment, a full two-thirds of people now have a positive perception of working from home 12. This change will make employees less hesitant to ask employers for work-from-home accommodations, and it should make employers more likely to grant those requests.

Surveys and Employee Meta Cognition

Working alone likely helped employees get a better idea of what skills they have and where they need assistance. The flexibility of their remote work arrangements may have revealed which tasks are better done at which part of the day or given workers other insights into their own productivity. As supervisors, be aware of this new knowledge on the part of your employees. As employees, be sure to mention these things to your supervisors 7.

In order to better understand this change in employee needs, many HR departments are surveying employees about post-pandemic work arrangements. While many employees currently indicate they want to continue to work from home, remember that these beliefs may change as the rest of the employees’ lives return to normal. In the same way that political leaders should not base decisions solely on public opinion polls, leaders must look at employee surveys as only one data point 8.

Managers should also be polled separately from employees. Many managers have found working remotely more frustrating because their job involves tasks that are more difficult to do remotely. Dealing with people, reading subtle interactions and ensuring collaboration are harder to do online, and if they are not done well, morale and teamwork decline and innovation will suffer. What managers think about the return-to-work plan should carry special weight 8.

The Big Question

As we determine how to move forward after the pandemic, the big question is not whether to return to normal. A full return to normal is not possible. The question is, ‘What will we be able to do better now than we could before?’ 8. We must have open eyes and acknowledge what has helped our business and what may have harmed it. We must compromise and maintain those changes that helped with productivity or morale and bring back the traditional way only where those ways were, in fact, better.

Almost certainly this will result in a future hybrid workplace that mixes working both from home and from the office a few days a week. Flexible hours and the ability to better juggle personal and professional responsibilities will become the new normal 13.

Picture of Dr. Brian Cronk

Dr. Brian Cronk

Dr. Brian Cronk is the inaugural Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Buffalo State where he has been charged with combining the School of Arts and Humanities with the School of Natural and Social Sciences. Prior to joining SUNY Buffalo State, he served as a Board of Governors Distinguished Professor at Missouri Western State University. He is the author of a best-selling textbook on using IBM's SPSS statistical analysis software for data analysis and interpretation.

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