Yes everyone, it is another article about Covid-19. However, hopefully this article is a bit different. There will be no ‘woe is us’ generalisations and metaphorical wringing of hands here, the purpose is to look at the route that we have taken and whether we should continue down it unchecked.
You simply cannot write an article that uses the words ‘Covid-19’ and ‘pandemic’, without referencing and paying homage to the impact, affect and devastation that events over the last 18 months have had on people all around this blue marble we call home. The impact of Covid-19 is referred to as a once-in-a-lifetime event, and hopefully this is correct. The pandemic has caused us to all learn and become familiar with a new vocabulary. We have learned words and phrases such as R-number, furlough, PCR, lateral flow, social distancing and the ‘New Normal’.
The ‘New Normal’ is a phrase that has stood the test of time, in that it is still part of common parlance in worldwide news cycles and half of all emails received from people trying to – let’s be honest – sell you something, use the phrase. The bane of some people’s lives, the phrase nevertheless indicates the marked difference between where we find ourselves in April 2021 compared to the attitudes and relationships of employers and employees as recently as February 2020.
There is absolutely no doubt that in the UK, March 2020 resulted in the biggest change of working situations since the industrial revolution pulled people out of the fields and into factories, or since coal mines closed under the Thatcher Government. Please save all booing and hissing until the end.
It would be facetious to suggest that the ‘Covid change’ was the same as these two examples. Neither of these situations were caused by a global pandemic which had significant impact and effect on day-to-day lives, and, of course, which has resulted in increased rate of death. Both were also seen as progressive and the way forward and seen as a good thing by the majority. The point I am making here is that these two scenarios were just as seismic a shift as the concept of pandemic working.
Wearing a flippant hat to begin with, the phrase is used to refer to the situation in an ongoing pandemic world. It refers to the concepts of working from home, Teams and Zoom calls throughout the day (other software is available), trying not to eat the contents of the fridge in one morning, not seeing colleagues face to face and, probably, wearing pyjama bottoms while doing all of this. However, when we look below the surface, the ‘New Normal’ is much more than this.
Attitudes to working from home, prior to 2020, were varied. Some companies were on the working-from-home bus and had been for ages, others were not sure that they wanted to go where that bus was heading. March 2020 left people with no choice. The ‘New Normal’ has come about through an absolute lack of choice. Companies which, in normal circumstances, would never in a million years have allowed their workforce to disappear off and work from home for months on end are the same companies referred to when the issue of presenteeism is discussed, usually in hushed tones. Having spoken to a few businesses during the transition period, they (off the record) admitted that some of the hesitation about allowing working from home previously had been the loss of control over staff; how could you make sure that they were doing the work? Could you trust them to perform? This is a wider issue. I would – and have – argue that if you cannot trust someone to work from home then you should not be employing them. End of discussion.
The ‘New Normal’ has seen a situation where employees now enjoy much greater control and responsibility over the scheduling of their day-to-day duties, their working hours and their working environment. This is a really interesting concept, especially when read in conjunction with the attitudes of some companies which did not and had not engaged with the notion of their employees working from home.
It is here that the issues and concerns about the ‘New Normal’ collide with the positive attitudes towards the idea. It stands to reason that businesses which viewed their employees with suspicion ¬–‘if they’re not here and we can’t see them, they are not working’ – are the same ones which view the idea of working from home with suspicion and, on occasion, abject distain. Alternatively, proponents of the new situation refer to the fact that productivity has generally increased, sickness rates (non-Covid) have significantly fallen, employees seem generally happier and, most importantly, the work/life balance of employees across the UK has dramatically improved. Of course, employees have to be conscious of their start and finish times – but when they master this, they will revel in the commute being the stairs, not the motorway.
When we have not seen the ‘devastation’ to the entire economy that critics of working from home feared pre-Covid, one has to ask: what was the hesitance in the first place?
This leads to the question, or one of them, posed by the title. Do we need the ‘New Normal’? In a world where graduates and entry-level positions at Goldman Sacs are asking for a cap of 80 working hours a week (as widely reported in March 2021), do we need a situation where employees have more say over their work/life balance and more control over how they do what they do and where they do it? The answer is obviously yes. Yes, we need to empower employees. Yes, we need to ensure that the working practices reflect the needs and demands of employees. Employees around the world have the potential to see benefits, not just in terms of the fact they are working from home, but commuting costs are lower; households are becoming ‘accidental savers’ by not spending as much on fuel, ‘going out’ (and out out!), impulse purchases and car insurance. Employers have seen benefits. Some have been able to ‘close’ sections of their offices and receive government support. Some have seen their utility bills fall, some have even been able to permanently close their offices and save thousands a year.
However, there is, like with everything, a flip side. The idea of the ‘New Normal’ is divisive, a Marmite issue. Personally, I always said that I did not want to work from home. I thought that the lure of the sofa would be too great. However, despite the fact I am sitting in my kitchen on the sofa as I write this, this is unusual. I, like many employees, was sent home in March 2020 with a screen, a laptop and other bits and bobs, such as a screen riser. When it became clear that the pandemic would not be over in a few weeks this expanded to include a desk and an office chair and my kitchen table was demoted from desk back to kitchen table.
I was able to get some more work done and not have to worry about the traffic, but, as I said, this is a marmite issue. As much as there are benefits to working from home, such as saving money and being able to have a bit of a lie in, there are some issues around the idea of working from home being the ‘New Normal’. Some people need the journey out of the house, either because they live alone and need the social interaction, or they have children and need the ‘peace’ of work. For some, this causes deeper issues.
Fifteen to 20 years ago a pandemic would not have caused people to work from home to the extent that we have seen now. Simply, the technology was not there to allow that to happen. Attitudes towards mental health have also changed in this time. We are familiar with the concept of ‘not being ok’ and talking about mental health now. Because of this, I would argue that more effort has been made in the last year to connect with colleagues than ever before. If a workforce is in the office there is an inclination to ask if people are ok and to have chats with colleagues. Not being in the office made this harder. ‘I’m not ok’ is something that is, and will always be, difficult to say. It is seen as highlighting something that people generally try to avoid showing – weakness. Years ago, the idea of one colleague saying to another that they are ‘down’, ‘feeling rubbish’, or ‘just want a chat’ would have been rare. Between male colleagues it would have been non-existent. Mental health and wellbeing is a fundamental part of the employee engagement piece within a business.
The concept of the ‘New Normal’ overlooks the challenges that working from home poses in relation to the negative impact on people’s mental health. This is why there is a question about whether the ‘New Normal’ is needed, or, to put it another way, whether we should accept it? Employers should be mindful to listen to what their employees are saying. Some employees will have different roles, different lifestyles, and different expectations of what their relationship with their employer entails. The ‘New Normal’ is not something that will be appropriate, or wanted, for all. Some employees may wish to go back to the office full-time, others will want a hybrid approach. Some will want to work from home the entire time.
The ‘New Normal’ is therefore not the finished article and I would argue that we should not accept it as such without question. What I do agree with is that this is an important first step to changing the relationship that UK employees have with their employers, but it is vital that the concept is fine-tuned on an individual basis to ensure that the positive steps that have been made continue, with measures taken to minimise the negative impact on employees’ wellbeing.
To conclude, then. The ‘New Normal’: A good first step which has pushed a button that needed pushing years ago, but let’s not get swept up in the concept without making sure that we are properly looking after and working with our number-one resource, the people who work for our businesses and make us what we are.