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No, the “New Normal” Is Not Here to Stay

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I’m always hesitant to publicize a contrarian perspective that makes me seem like a Luddite. I rarely get that “I told you so” satisfaction from it. I address it too early, and by the time I’m proven right, most people have forgotten what I wrote. However, decision-makers have taken for granted the assumption that there is a “new normal” of remote working, social distancing, and limited travel.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of lessons we should learn from the current arrangements. For example, if you are well enough to work but contagious, even with a common cold, it should be professionally acceptable to work remotely. Plus, one day of remote work for every employee in Los Angeles County would eliminate most rush hour traffic jams. However, people have short memories, and organizations have even shorter ones. COVID-19 is the current crisis. In the past, it was 9/11, devastating earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. We get through it, and for better or worse, we get over it, despite the headlines during the crisis that depict “life will never be the same.”
Entry-Level Employee Limitations
The first challenge to the ‘new normal’ is entry-level employees. Eight years ago, as part of an article I wrote for No Jitter, Millennials and Collaborative Tech: 5 Reasons Not to Freak Out, I interviewed Michelle Rowan, an early consultant and advocate for enterprise teleworking programs. Michelle understood remote working limits with new employees and shared that "a higher percentage of the younger demographic prefer and seek out a physical office environment.” She also added that many are shaping their career visions and prefer as much face-to-face exposure to informal and formal mentors, colleagues, culture, and infrastructure as they can attain. The question today is, are we going to leave the “kids” in the office while the more established employees work remotely? That would negate the value of the entry-level employee’s office time. The touted productivity gains of working from home (WFH) are based primarily on experienced employees with established working relationships, which doesn’t automatically translate into the same productivity level with typical employee churn factored in.
Workplaces are Important Social Hubs
It’s too early to tell how much of the WFH productivity gain is incidental to everything else being closed: restaurants, fitness centers, etc. Most humans crave social interaction, complete with coffee and lunch breaks. For most of this year since March, video meetings have been the most social environment possible or allowed by law. For now, it’s where you can take your mask off and have extended conversations without conscious awareness of distance. We have been in this together, making the most of what we can do. Once the whole rest of the world is open, virtual meetings will not be as satisfying as our physical interactions.
For the sake of employee retention, employers work hard to keep them socially connected within organizations, and this effort is supported by research. The Society for Human Resource Management’s guide, Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success confirms that research has long found acceptance by peers to be an indicator of adjustment, integration into one’s workgroup is positively related to commitment and turnover, and high-quality relationships with leaders and other team members undoubtedly are related to favorable onboarding outcomes, including performance and job satisfaction. The guide identifies “useful tactics,” such as “making time to engage in small talk with colleagues, arranging informal social interactions, such as lunches or coffee breaks,” and “participating in voluntary company functions.” A smart employer is going to encourage social connectivity with activity clubs, birthday lunches, and group celebrations as a competitive advantage.
Competitive Customer Engagement
There is no question that it is easier to video conference than to travel to events and meetings, and the effort to replace travel with virtual meetings preceded this pandemic. However, predictions that everyone will do what is easier only work if competing organizations all follow the same rules. For example, John Maynard Keynes' 1930 prediction that "the tremendous productivity growth will cause us to work just 15 hours a week in the end" is echoed with each technological advance, but has not come to pass. Companies choose to remain at a 40-hour workweek for the competitive advantage of leveraging productivity gains over employee leisure time, and even with higher wages, workers themselves often prefer more hours.
Competitive factors similarly apply to the repeated prediction of reduced travel. Just as with employee engagement, building trusted relationships is also necessary with customers and business partners. Sales teams will travel to interact with prospective clients when possible. If their competitors limit client interactions to video, all the better. The same prediction was understandably made after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but business travel will return again once restrictions are no longer in place.
Worker Equity
I was on the California 91 State Freeway a few days ago at 5 p.m. and noted that it was just as crowded as before the shutdown. It occurred to me that a lot of the traffic on this route results from industrial areas of Greater Los Angeles to more affordable residential cities. In other words, the 91 freeway is the route for jobs that cannot be performed by workers remotely. Most No Jitter readers can easily be productive in a remote environment, but there may also be jobs at that same reader’s company that require being on-site, by no fault of the worker.
I have consulted with companies that strive to maintain consistent policies for all workers; a warehouse that requires a clean “no food” environment will restrict all employees from eating in their cubicles. An assembly line that requires strict lunch breaks will extend the same policy to office workers. It may be true that some workers are now in a better position to work from home, but many employers will recognize the impact on the morale of their other (often less compensated) employees.
The One Exception: Open Workspaces
I started my IT career as a facility manager with a phone system to manage. In these days, closed offices and 5-foot high cubicles were the standards. There has never been a proven advantage to open offices. I consider enclosed workspaces to be the “standard” and open offices the “experiment,” so this pandemic is a final reason to end the experiment of open workspaces.
Finally, please help vindicate me with this list of predictions. Put a reminder on your calendar 16 months from now with a hyperlink to this article. If it turns out that I’m right, send me a quick note from your office cubicle saying, “Robert, you were right!” That is, assuming that you’re not busy catching your flight to your conference or business meeting!