“I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” It’s a common refrain. More than 13 months into the pandemic, almost everyone is getting weary of the anxiety and the restrictions. So it’s certainly not surprising that we are all looking for a reprieve from the constant barrage of pandemic news and gloom. But this phrase is deceptive and fraught with delusion – erroneously assuming that what will be in the future will be similar to what was in the past.
It’s time to face the uncomfortable truth – we are never going back to the way it was before. Too much has changed – realities, expectations, technology – and whatever the postpandemic future has in store for us, it will not be “back to normal.” Things will eventually make their way back to commonplace, routine and ordinary – but if you are expecting life to be the same as it was before March, 2020, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and failure. And if your employees also have this expectation, you and your team are in for a rocky ride.
There are many irrefutable changes that will impact the future world of work – both at the macro and micro levels.
The pandemic has conclusively proven that work can be done remotely. Not everything, of course – but a lot more than we ever thought possible. If you were previously not enamoured with the idea of your staff working from home, you’re certainly going to be hard-pressed to deny them now, particularly if they want to do so only occasionally.
Countless clients and customers have discovered that electronic transactions of all kinds are simple and seamless. Whether they are shopping, meeting with colleagues, or signing bank documents, people have discovered that the online option is often simpler and more efficient than the in-person equivalent. Postpandemic, workplaces and their leadership must be be prepared to continue with these alternatives – only offering face-to-face services just won’t cut it in the increasingly competitive landscape.
In the past, if employees were sick, they might have dragged themselves into work – and perhaps even been lauded for their exceptional work ethic. But in the postpandemic world, doing the same is likely to result in a stern talking-to by managers and peers alike, after which the staffer would probably get sent home. It’s one of the many learnings from the past months that will stick with us long afterwards: If you’re not feeling well, not only can you not be productive, but nobody will thank you for also making them sick.
Despite these undeniable shifts in the work environment, it’s clear there are still many people harbouring a secret hope that things will “go back to normal” once we are finally on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. But forward-thinking leaders and workers alike will take deliberate steps to leave that static thinking behind and think about how they can apply what we’ve learned during this time.
Start by changing the words you use. Stop talking about “going back” – instead say, “moving forward.” “Back” only implies a return to what was – and we already know that the future will be much different. Remind your peers and your staff that “moving forward” will take everyone towards this new, promising paradigm. The more you make the effort to make this top of mind, the greater the mental shift you will bring about in your workplace.
To further accentuate the needed change in thinking, explain what the future might look like. At universities and colleges, classes will probably be a blend of virtual and in-person. In factories, workers almost certainly will keep wearing personal protective equipment, even though it can be hot and uncomfortable. Grocery cashiers will likely continue to maintain strict cleaning protocols. For the future to be successful, professors will have to adapt the way they teach; factories may need to invest in better lightweight gear; and stores and clinics will need to ensure non-toxic cleaning products and lotions to soothe workers’ dry, chapped hands resulting from frequent washing.
We are never going back to the old ways — but we will move forward to another ordinary. We just have to help each other get there.
Merge Gupta-Sunderji is a leadership speaker, consultant and the founder of leadership development consultancy Turning Managers Into Leaders.
Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.