As profound an experience as it has been to lead an enterprise through the pandemic, what’s to come may make every bit as much of an impression. So many things that we took for granted as practices and behaviors etched in stone were interrupted, suspended, or eliminated entirely. We’ve recrafted our workplaces; in fact, we have redefined them. Business relationships have been simultaneously hindered and enhanced by that mother of all invention. As we exit the tunnel into the light of the post-pandemic, we will be challenged collectively in crafting the next normal.
Will we, can we, and frankly, should we return to our old workplaces and methods of defining work itself? Whether we should or not depends on the efficiencies we’ve missed from our traditional work settings. How do we possibly quantify the value of watercooler conversations, in terms of both the creative ideas they may contribute to our organizations as well as the camaraderie they generate. Cohesive and collaborative teams are certainly critical to an enterprise like my own, and certainly I’m not alone.
While there were many benefits to having our team in a traditional office and manufacturing setting, working closely together during common hours and under one roof, in some ways the interruption of this “normal” setting was not as disruptive as we might have imagined. Collaboration has certainly continued, just on different platforms, and in our case it has remained strong. Tools such as Zoom meetings have, for example, created space for including additional contributors to meetings they might otherwise have missed had the event been constrained by the four walls of a conference room. Of course, in the “next normal,” our meetings will likely incorporate both. It’s my hope that somewhere, in some dark little incubator up in the Valley, an enterprising, aspiring, future titan is furiously coding a virtual watercooler, and I hope they don’t put down the Mountain Dew until they’ve equipped said watercooler with a whiteboard emulator.
The question of whether we can return to our anti-pandemic modes of work is every bit as vexing. Whether as leaders we wish such a return may not be entirely within our control. To some degree or another, the remote work genie has vacated the bottle. For those of our team members whose KPIs can be entirely satisfied via transmission over high-speed internet, it may be difficult, if not impossible to coax them back into the office. It’s probably worth checking in with the HR department to see how many of your staff updated their mailing addresses before W-2s went out. You might be surprised by how many traded in their urban studio apartment for a cabin in Truckee, California. Even those who stayed put may be benefiting from the absence of an hour-long commute—that, and they now have that pandemic puppy to look after. Careful consideration will have to be given to the approach we take to a return to the traditional office setting.
With the economic recovery taking hold, unemployment is dropping while competition for skilled team members is on the rise, and flexible/remote work may become an increasingly important consideration regarding workplace appeal. As leaders, we will likely find ourselves collaborating, if not negotiating with our teams as to how our next normal will take shape. This includes that extremely sticky wicket of vaccines, vaccine passports, and questions like, “Do I have to get vaccinated to be in the office?” and “Do I have to work in the office with colleagues who aren’t vaccinated? Ugh!”
Should we return to the good old status quo? For so many of us it seemed to be working just fine. Like all good organizations, ours was always looking for opportunities to improve, seek greater efficiencies, and maximize our efforts. In that regard, we may want to view the pandemic as somewhat of a natural experiment. It is worth quantifying as best we can what a socially distanced workplace has cost us as well as where it has provided benefits. It would be a shame to miss the opportunity to integrate the best that both traditional work environments and remote or socially distanced work have to offer. Our team is, in fact, working to identify the strengths and shortcomings of both experiences to help shape what will be our next normal.
As much as our team interactions have changed, so too have those with our customers.
- Video conferencing has proved a viable option to in-person interactions; what remains to be seen is whether they are, in fact, preferable.
- Participation in trade shows is another matter up for consideration. Whether as vendors or as visitors, virtual trade shows seemed anything but viable.
- And as we reconsider our workplaces, we are likewise reconsidering the marketing value of participating in in-person trade shows, not to mention our concern for how well they might be attended.
- We have to be able to interact with our prospective customers: “Hey, watercooler guy, is there an app for that?” But seriously, in crafting our next normal, it is again worth carefully examining the lessons of the last year and making sure we apply them.
I think it is worth emphasizing the notion of crafting what’s next for all of us: our teams, customers, and enterprises, as the alternative is being subjected to it. So, here’s to crafting your next normal, and with it, the success that it will foster.
Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron.