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The 'New Normal': What is it?

Lessons for leaders in the new normal

Back in March of this year, most of us anticipated that by fall we would have weathered the Coronavirus storm and life would return to what it was like before. Oh how naïve we were and how little we imagined what the power of the pandemic would be and the long-term challenges that would be created for our personal and professional lives. Most of us continue to work primarily from remote locations and now face the reality that it will likely be some time in the second or third quarter of 2021 before we entertain a return to some type of “formal” office environment. And who knows what that environment will look like and what the changes to office procedures will be. We've learned many things during the past nine months, and the need for agility and flexibility top the list.

The July/August 2020 Harvard Business Review includes a roundtable discussion of five CEOs who collectively lead a workforce of about 217,000 people worldwide. Writing this article has been interesting for a variety of reasons, so note the authors, as it reflects almost a recap of many discussions we've had over the past months around change overall and how we believe we will need to manage our workforces, in particular. What's the definition of leadership? Has it evolved? Changed?

It appears that the definition hasn't so much changed as the reliance upon candor (substance?) over charisma (style?) has become more relevant. It's simply that at this point in time, leadership is needed more than management. Be calm; have realistic optimism; show up and be visible. (HBR, July/August 2020).

We strongly agree with this, and posit that while it's not easy, leaders in this time and circumstance need to show vulnerability and admit when situations are hard to fathom and truly uncertain. The leaders we've interacted with over the years put value on being in charge and decisive. In this environment, it's increasingly difficult to be “in charge” the way we once were because one doesn’t really know what they're in charge of.

In this “current normal,” communication is critical. This isn't new. Communication has always been important in organizations; however, in this environment, it has taken on a primacy that necessitates an almost distorted strength in this core competency. Leaders need to overcommunicate and address concerns in the clearest and most timely ways.

Agility and adaptability, while always critical, have become even more so. One of the authors of this article was part of the four-person team who decided to go remote on March 13 of this year. We expected to be out of the office for four weeks. Obviously that expectation changed. Now, nine months later, we don’t even refer to the time “when we return to the office.” We continue to monitor the needs of our employees and create a “new” environment, conducive to handling both our business demands and client expectations. We're in a new “zone” and don’t know when, if ever, it returns to some form of normal the way we defined it prior. Has the pandemic simply accelerated trends that were quietly in process prior, or is there a newer normal that's evolving and still is not clear nor plannable?

How will we manage our organizations in the “next normal”? In addition to being agile and adaptable, we're likely to face a technologically mixed and more sophisticated workplace environment. We don’t anticipate that people won't return to the office at some point, but when that time occurs, we all agree it will not be the same. All of us expect a mix of on-site and remote working situations. We've found, surprisingly for many, that we can be quite productive working remotely with the right technological tools.

This situation will not replace the importance of in-person interactions, but it demonstrates that a mix of work environments will likely be part of the “new normal.” The pandemic, and the subsequent reliance on remote working, has fundamentally changed how leaders think about where talent will be located considering the expectations of the talent. For many job functions, an on-site workstation is not required or even necessary. And given the continued scarcity of talent that all organizations seem to be facing, especially in highly technical skill-based jobs, this “new normal” mix of work environments will only proliferate with the options growing. Furthermore, while how companies treat their people has always mattered, it will matter even more in this current and probable future situation.

“Employees and society want to see who you are as a company. What do you stand for? The answers will have lasting impact as we move beyond this.” (HBR, July/August 2020)

The Impact on Teams and Team Dynamics

How leaders manage their teams going forward is another probable change brought about by this COVID reality. People have reacted differently to this “new normal.” Some have panicked and others have remained calm and simply tried to pivot so as to manage in the best way for them personally. Some have struggled to juggle and cope; stress levels are high for many. Studies are now indicating that stress-related illnesses have increased dramatically over the past nine months. Sales of alcohol are up 25 percent nationally. It's safe to assume that a lot of people are drinking more perhaps in order to relax, but more to be able to cope.

Add to all of this the reality that COVID has touched all of us in different ways, both personally and professionally. Some of us have remained healthy and physically untouched by the virus; however, we “worry well.” Many have known someone who has become ill and has recovered. Some, tragically, have lost a loved one and are in the process of a more complex type of grieving. It's critical that leaders are cognizant of the different ways this pandemic has affected people. How companies engage employees must reflect a wider perspective of empathy and must include an acceptance of adaptability critical for managing individuals and teams.

Leaders set the tone for others. In this chaotic time, blanket policies/procedures will not work. Not all employees require the same level or type of support. Flexibility and and awareness of differences in levels of need and management of grief is critical. This dynamic inevitably will affect the greater team dynamic. With the reality of a far different workplace environment, managers will be tasked with managing and motivating teams that will challenge even the best of them.

Our message is abundantly clear: The “new normal” remains uncertain. A defined playbook is unavailable and, if it did exist, would do no more than suggest options leaders might follow. Flexibility, agility and adaptability are absolutely critical. The workplace environment has fundamentally changed. Creativity is a must for how teams are motivated and managed going forward. Good leaders have always been challenged. In this “new normal,” those challenges will become not only more complex, but also more unknown. To quote a great movie line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Frederick Lamster is the managing director at ZRG Partners, a progressive mid-sized global executive search firm that uses a proven, data-driven approach. Sharon Tunstall is chief human resources officer at Empower Media Agency, an advertising and marketing agency. 

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