Why the New Normal May Be the Old Normal

Even though many organizations are talking about a “hybrid” model for work post-pandemic, there seems to be a preference for bringing employees back to the office.

When masking and social distancing mandates end, the workplace we’re left with may look a lot like the old pre-pandemic one.

I have heard much about the permanent changes the pandemic will have brought after it’s over, but I’m doubtful. The latest article I found with that viewpoint is by Sara DiNatale in the Tampa Bay Times. She reports that many companies will offer newfound flexibility in worker location even after the pandemic is over. Employees will continue to have tremendous freedom in choosing where to work, rather than being tied to the office.

Companies such as Apple, and many others, however, as I previously reported on this blog, are advocating a hybrid model in which employees are expected to spend at least some time in the office. And it seems that even though they’re calling it a “hybrid” model, there is a preference for keeping employees in the office. I have heard of companies here in New York City that expect employees to return to 100 percent office-based work once the all-clear is given and COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

After 9/11, there was speculation that most people would never want to live in New York City—and especially Lower Manhattan—ever again and that far fewer people would want to fly or travel internationally. Guess what? Those assumptions were all false. New York City real estate rebounded to unprecedented levels, and the domestic and international travel markets also fully recovered. The pandemic is not a terrorist attack, but it’s also an internationally disruptive event. There is no reason to think history won’t repeat itself, and the old ways, including employer expectations, won’t make a big comeback.

The overwhelming number of video meetings is a sign that people crave interaction. I don’t happen to share that craving, but I’m in the minority. Video meetings only take you so far psychologically. As much as people claim to love the freedom of working from their kitchen or living room, there is a widespread desire for greater in-person time. This may sound a little wild and crazy, but I even think—gasp!—that handshaking will return. I loathe handshaking, so I am sad to say that, but like in-person meetings and congregating, it’s a natural gesture for most humans. When COVID-19 was just ramping up in late February 2020, I attended the last in-person conference I would attend before the pandemic. I wanted to take sensible precautions. When an attendee reached out to shake my hand, I declined, smiling and trying to laugh breezily: “COVID precautions,” I said. She was put off by my decision not to shake her hand—even as we stood on the precipice of the pandemic. You can argue that now that we’ve been programmed for over a year to take precautions to avoid germs, people will never be deprogrammed, but I’m skeptical. Natural human tendencies—including in-person congregating and handshaking—will be back when the pandemic is fully over.

The challenge many companies will have is employees who gambled, or made the assumption, that remote work would be acceptable forever, and moved far from where their company is based. They may have moved a few hours into the suburbs or countryside. Will organizations give in and allow those employees to continue working remotely if they have successfully been doing so, or will they be recalled to the office for at least part of the week? If employees have been productive and reliable working remotely, there is a value in maintaining employee satisfaction by letting them continue to work from home. However, there also are repercussions to your corporate culture to consider.

Ironically, the workplace gains a formality when people all work in different places. Instead of just casually dropping by a colleague’s desk to say, “Hello,” or ask a question, a time often needs to be scheduled for a phone call or a meeting. The impromptu gathering or coffee break with colleagues is gone. In its place are scheduled video meetings in which each employee is relegated to a box on a screen reminiscent of The Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares. It’s not conducive to easy, breezy interactions.

It will be interesting to see how much the pandemic ends up permanently transforming the workplace. We may be shocked to discover how boringly familiar our post-pandemic world looks and feels.

How are you planning to transition your workforce into a post-pandemic world in which there (hopefully) are no longer hindrances to in-person interaction?

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