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Guest Blogger

by Mark Hillary

Ted Nardin from 5th Talent just published an interesting article suggesting that the ‘New Normal’ is just an illusion. Every management consultant globally has been earning fees predicting where the new normal will take companies in the post-pandemic environment, so it’s always interesting to see a voice arguing that maybe the changes would have taken place anyway.

Ted focused on three main points in his argument:

  1. Employee retention: the retention and hiring issues we are seeing now are more complex than just a reaction to the pandemic and the trends were already developing in 2019.
  2. Loneliness and isolation: Americans were already suffering from isolation before the pandemic made it worse and anyone hoping for a return to ‘normal’ is actually aiming at the wrong target. 61% of Americans reported loneliness in 2019.
  3. Remote work: a lot was already known abut how to safely and reliably work-from-home (WFH). The key issue is management. Managers are asking people back to the office only if they have not evolved during the crisis.

Ted concludes with this statement:

“Dispense with the idea that a “New Normal” is on the horizon and you will simply adjust and carry on as per two years ago. Instead, embrace the idea of an ever-evolving state of the business. The challenges you face today didn’t arise out of the pandemic. They existed before but were pushed to the surface because of it.”

This is an important point. In much of the pandemic coverage in the business media there has been a tendency to focus on the pre and post pandemic environment. This approach is too simple, because it fails to take into account that the pandemic has taken place over the past 18 months. Business and industries will have seen different trends and changing priorities during that period so we cannot just talk of a before and after period.

The ‘after’ is a moot point anyway. Where I live in Brazil we are still seeing about 1,000 people die of Covid every single day. Masks are still mandatory when outside the home and most companies still don’t have a road map back to the office. I’m still not even fully vaccinated. Some countries still have a lot of ground to cover before this is in the rear-view mirror.

Last April, 5th Talent published a research paper where they surveyed almost 6,000 contact centre workers in 13 countries – 92% agents and 8% supervisors or managers. There were many interesting takeaways from this research, but I’m going to just mention a couple of findings:

  • The Top Work Arrangement Choice is 100% Work at Home. However, Most Employees Do Not Want to be 100% Virtual. Only 2% Want to Return to the Center 100% of the Time. In May of 2020, the top choice was a mix of working at home and in the center. Now 69% of employees say they want to work at home 100% of the time, yet still want access to the center for training, meetings with their supervisors and team, and for social activities.
  • The Work at Home Model Continues to Face Challenges that Impact Long-Term Sustainability. As with previous studies, many employees who work remotely expressed that it requires more effort to work with each other, that they often face feelings of isolation and loneliness, and that they are experiencing growing fatigue. The supervisor is experiencing more challenges than agents due to the new “physical gap” between them and their team.

Why is this important? Just look at the number of people who don’t want to ever return to an office on a full-time basis. This also resonates with the anecdotal experience I have of talking to several executives in Europe that have tried getting their employees back into the office at least one or two days a week. Many employees don’t want to be in the office this often – it’s seen more as a venue for training or social activities. One or two days a month seems more realistic, especially for workers that have left urban environments during the pandemic.

Also, one of the key problems is management and supervision. The British government hit the headlines recently because they threatened employees with pay cuts if they do not return to the office. Instead of using this opportunity to build a more flexible organisation, managers are resorting to blunt threats and an intention to “return to normal.”

The Harvard Business Review featured research recently that emphasises this point. The HBR argued that remote working creates an opportunity to build more democratic organisations that rely less on who knows who and more on rewarding the people who genuinely deliver for the company.

You don’t need to be a 100% WFH company to start focusing more on deliverables and achievement rather than allowing presenteeism to dictate who succeeds, but you do need to change your management culture to embrace both WFH and a more equitable work environment.

Ted’s original question centres around the fact that change was happening anyway, the pandemic just forced more rapid change in certain areas. There is an opportunity to come out of this with more successful companies that are better to work for, but that will never happen if the management focus is on rolling back life to 2019.

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