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Is This the New Normal?

Is the new normal by Sergei Gorbatov

As if the existing complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity were not enough, COVID-19 has emptied streets around the world. But when it comes to working virtually, what has changed?

by Sergey Gorbatov, professor of Human Resources & Organizational Behavior at IE Business School.

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Today, the challenges facing organizations, employees, and communities are unprecedented, the stakes are high, and certainty is nowhere to be found. It’s like being caught in a sandstorm. You can’t see clearly. It is both physically and emotionally challenging. You’re exposed to forces stronger than you.

Even more daunting, you don’t know when it’s going to end. Under such staggering circumstances, it is only natural for employees who were sent home to work virtually to feel isolated, stressed, anxious… almost incapacitated.

Today’s world of work

Let’s look at two undeniable facts about today’s world of work. First, you can no longer see the work. We are predominately a society of knowledge workers. The fourth industrial revolution has happened. Managers have to manage work processes they can’t see. In the Fordist era, a supervisor would examine the quality of the goods produced and the efficiency of the conveyor belt assembly. Knowledge work is hard to see. It’s harder to produce quality knowledge work according to a strict timetable. It’s portable. It’s often intangible.

Second, not only do you not see the work, more and more often, you don’t see the worker. Projects are global. Teams are distributed. Working from home is in your company’s policies. Do you need to be physically close to your team member to watch a piece of code in the making? Do you care if this work is done in the office next door or hundreds of miles away? Does it matter? Most often, it does not. In fact, relying only on workers who are close to you drastically reduces the pool of available talent.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought some key ideas to the fore:

  1. Virtual work is already the new normal for many knowledge workers. For years, companies have been talking about “going digital.” In a blink of an eye, everyone went digital when shelter-in-place and #stayathome ordinances came out.
  2. Organizations that embraced digital early were better prepared to send their employees home. Business continued as usual to the greatest extent possible.
  3. Crises are inevitable. They are hard to predict. Black swans happen. Organizations are well advised to get future-proofed.

Start preparing now

Will we find ourselves in this situation again? Probably. In some shape or form. Organizations often impose a temporary travel ban to contain costs. Start preparing now.

Practically speaking, there are several things that you and your company can implement quickly. First, technology has been a great enabler of virtual work. There is no shortage of productivity, collaboration, and telecommunication tools. Select those that serve the needs of your employees, make them available, and teach everyone to use them properly. Don’t let your office-based workers shun technology, as this will hamper organization-wide adoption.

Second, some changes in governance and routines will be needed. Virtual meetings must be tighter and shorter, with clear agendas. Pre-reading and preparation will become more important. You need to account for different time zones. Allowances need to be made for technology issues.

Finally, support your virtual workers. There is ample scientific research demonstrating that virtual work can increase employee productivity, creativity, and morale. A great deal of support may come from leadership messaging that working from home is a normal and acceptable alternative to the traditional 9-to-5 job. Make your intent to enable virtual work clear. And hold your managers accountable for making sure that their virtual employees are set up for success.

 

This article represents the author’s personal opinions and not those of his employer or affiliated organizations.