The new normal

This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

This week’s relaxation of some of Australia’s COVID lockdown rules had a predictably explosive effect – a bit like pulling the pin out of a grenade.

After months of rolling tumble weeds, cafe forecourts became busy gathering points for collections of strangers looking like they were waiting for a drug deal. Power and Crows footballers suddenly thought it was OK to flit back and forth over the border again in their Camrys and MGs. Down on main street, hairdressers took to everyone’s eight-week old locks like gleeful sheep shearers…and dyed a lot of grey hair. Public transport commuters raged against the machine as they were pushed and shoved into 10 cm distancing, then returned to their cars in frustration as cyclists (who have had it all to themselves) fumed.

It was tempting to think that this was indeed the “end of the beginning” (to borrow Churchill’s famous WWII quote).

However, many believe that the COVID experiment is more likely to be the “beginning of the beginning” of a new normal.

No-one would have predicted three months ago that businesses and organisations could operate effectively and productively with just a video screen and a (sometimes shaky) internet line for brainstorming, coffee chats, handshakes and high fives.

But we are a remarkably adaptable lot. In our virtual workplace alone, meetings times have reduced by 30% as people attend punctually, get on with their business and hit the button to leave on time (or is that just the absence of football to gossip about?).

So, we can’t help but question if this is indeed the end of the bricks and mortar office?

What are offices really for?

A May 9 article in The Economist asked: what are offices really for? It quotes an agent from corporate real estate firm Knight Frank: “The days of people taking a 74-minute average commute into town to process email, and then 74 minutes back out—they’re gone…the focus of the workplace will be much more around collaboration, much more around the things you can only get the most value from by being together.”

The Economist goes on to report that according to Deloitte the pandemic has brought about a “five-year acceleration” of a trend that was already under way: “it has shown that working from home is feasible and has made it more acceptable. The old view that you’ve got an easy day if you work from home has become much less common.”

This may have big implications for the value of CBD offices, or the viability of inner-city snack bars, cafes and gyms.

Retailers had to face the internet shopping tiger ten years ago, finding ways to either compete (through their own websites and e-commerce solutions) or die. But office-based businesses have been slow to come to the idea of working virtually and now the run for the suburbs might be on.

Around four million Australians (or 30% of workers) have the type of job that enables them to work from home. According to a Roy Morgan survey, by late April an estimated 1.6 million of these have set up offices at home as a direct result of the virus. No-one knows how many will return to a new socially distanced workplace in June or July.

It is interesting that this new flexibility is perhaps a luxury only available to some – a US study found that it is only knowledge workers (executives, IT professionals, financial analysts, accountants) who earn the top 10% of incomes that get to choose their workplace.

This class divide is backed up in Australia. Another Roy Morgan survey found that over three-quarters of employees in the retail (87%), transport and storage (82%), manufacturing (82%) and recreation and personal (77%) sectors do not (or cannot) work from home.

So, if 30-40% of society chooses this path, what might “the new normal” look like?

Welcoming the new normal

Leisurely morning exercise. Choosing jeans rather than a suit. Walking twenty steps to the office (desk). Starting early. Communicating by Zoom/Google Hangouts/Microsoft Office…with your pet on your lap. Playing barista with your own espresso machine. Taking a lunchtime break to water the broad beans, feed the sourdough starter or partake in a spot of recreational yoga. Working later to finish a project.

Will the offices of the future be more like a drop-in centre with a suite of hot desks, a few meeting rooms for collaborative discussion and brainstorming, perhaps an in-house café and a bar? More airport lounge than open space?

There’s a lot of upsides in this new form of work. Apart from the quality of life for workers who no longer have to undertake the daily commute and can spend more time with their families, the environment will be the big winner. Early reports suggest emissions will be down by 8% this year or 2,600MtCO2, the largest ever annual fall. If that is maintained every year during the next decade we will meet the Paris Agreement target limiting warming to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures by 2030.

But none of this comes without personal challenges? In this exploded form of working, how do we as managers maintain culture? What internal communication strategies should we be using to maintain the mental health of our staff – particularly among singles working in isolation.

The importance of communication in times of crisis

Treating COVID as an internal crisis communication challenge is a good starting point for CEOs. It’s important to be open, honest and transparent. Make sure the communications channels you use are inclusive. Frequency of communication is even more vital than normal. Maintain the Monday morning Work in Progress (WIP) meeting and ensure everyone has a chance to report in. Perhaps initiate team catch ups every morning, even if it is just for five or ten minutes: hearing others and being heard is vital for every employee’s sense of belonging and place. It is also worthwhile in smaller teams for managers to conduct one on one Zoom chats just to head off any feelings of loneliness and to assure everyone of their value.

Be creative. At Fuller we have upped the frequency of our internal e-newsletter Full of It. Prior to COVID it was an occasional publication to welcome new staff and tell their story. Now it is a commitment every Friday afternoon that recognises individual achievements and shares cultural conversations – favourite Netflix movies, lockdown recipes, good books, music clips, photographs and artworks from our travels through life.

To replace the morning coffee machine chat, one of our enterprising staff launched a WhatsApp group, sharing pics of our gardens, pets, sunrises, sunsets…even what we’re wearing on any given day. It’s warm, funny and supportive, and interestingly something many of us maintain out of work hours too.

For clients, our Coffee with PK chat – anchored by our indefatigably positive Business Development Manager Paul Kitching – has kept up the vitally important routine of face to face engagement (via video) and relationship building.

I’ve heard of similar internal engagement strategies being used in other offices: competitions to identify staff members from their baby photos, Friday night drinks by Zoom, online games, wine masterclasses, book clubs.

As managers and employees, we have arrived – dare I say “together” – at a period in time which may well be looked at in 50 years as a major turning point just as life changing as the industrial revolution.

The choice is ours – will we go back to the same old, same old? Or will we seek out a new productivity that will be good for us, good for our children and good for our planet.