Employers: Imagining the New Normal


Jennifer Liston-Smith

Head of Coaching, Consultancy & Thought Leadership at Bright Horizons UK

No timetable, but be prepared

This article is offered to support business and HR leaders working now to develop practical frameworks for return to work AC (After Coronavirus). That’s some way off, but worth imagining, ahead.

My role, and mission, in the business world over the last 15 years has been to work with leading employers, changing workplace culture and practice, to enable career and family to blend successfully for working parents and carers, as an overall win-win. In focusing on what works for career-minded parents and carers (of any gender), I’ve got involved in a lot of debate and innovation around flexible and agile working, management and leadership development, engagement and employee experience, and talent retention across life stages and lifecycles. So; what have we learned along the way from coaching individuals and line managers through parental leave, for example, that could translate to useful guidance on return to work in the post-Coronavirus world?

It’s partly about really understanding the different forces at play and figuring out which of those we can control and influence and - at a people level - it's about crafting better ways of doing Moments that Matter.

We’re thinking forward. Here in the UK, it’s evident that Lockdown will very likely continue in some form beyond this second 3 week extension, and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab suggests it would undermine progress if we start looking towards the end before the peak of the pandemic. New Labour Leader Kier Starmer – determined to carry through his promise of constructive Opposition – recognises a timetable is hard to pin down and can’t come yet, but nevertheless asks the Government for ‘transparency and openness’ regarding the route out of Lockdown. Starmer comments: "We need robust replacement arrangements in place and we need to know what they are, as soon as possible." He also comments that we will need to be ready ahead of the next phase: “Mass testing and tracing are almost certain be part of any exit strategy. If that is to happen, then planning needs to take place now." Similar pondering is going on at a global level. Germany is easing up a little. Of course in the US, the pull of the election has the potential to hasten the plan to open up, sooner.

We mustn’t get too excited; but while we wait, we can begin to co-design what the new normal could and should look like. We can play a real part in that, potentially.

Re-establishing your workforce: 5 elements of success

1. The Practical Set-up

2. Working from Home at scale?

3. People: Wellbeing and Purpose

4. Care for the Carers

5. Legacy

Let’s have a look at each of these.

1. The Practical Set-up

‘Back to Normal’ won’t be anything very swift, or even that recognisable. According to Stephen M. Kissler, Christine Tedijanto and colleagues at Harvard: “prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022”, and acquired immunity may not last beyond a year. So, pending a vaccine, and before we even get on to the people side of things, there is a huge piece of work around the practical set up.

Spaced-out offices and workspaces: Just as we’ve heard that cinemas are likely to need 2-seat spaces between every booking, and restaurants seating so sparse it is hard to justify, so with our bricks & mortar offices. Workstations and factory floors will need to be distanced, and/or workers (even knowledge workers) perhaps taking turns in shifts to achieve lower occupancy. This sounds sensible, though of course any necessary rearrangements have to be done – as safely as possible – pre-return, during social distancing. Not too challenging in most offices though more so in plants with heavy machinery to re-position. And all quite costly when things are already quite tough to say the least.

Reinstating: Some facilities will need fully restoring after noble efforts to join in with the national need. Eventually – we hope – field hospitals will be restored to life as exhibition centres, music venues, skate parks. Factories such as Ford and Airbus that geared up to make ventilators will return to the humble business of making cars and planes.

Re-establishing supply chains: In less dramatic and visible ways, adjustments will be needed by many: pumps and sprays for cosmetic and household products will have been diverted to hand sanitisers as well as being impacted by the shutdown in China. At its worst, this could undermine manufacturers who are otherwise ready to go; in its most positive form, it offers an opportunity to review the supply chain, including questioning the air miles involved. Some larger employers will be able to make generous gestures to support smaller suppliers, such as engineering company Thermax: where soon-to-retire managing director and CEO, M.S. Unnikrishnan, urges: “People first, economy second—this is what I believe in … Thermax is, therefore, planning to reimburse salaries for the workmen of some of its contractors who are unable to pay given the lockdown … we can’t be contractual and business-like. There should be large heartedness among the larger companies. We may have to make advance payments to some of our smaller suppliers and help them overcome difficulties"

Transportation may present challenges: even if the place of work is well sanitised and socially distant: are your people willing, and safe, to travel in? Even in London where this issue might be particularly acute, it is shadowed – on a global scale – by the challenges presented to employers in India, for example, finding their skilled labour and other workers have made a long and treacherous trip back to their villages. Coming back is no simple on/off decision. Even where distances are smaller, you may need to consider altering start and finish times to make travel by public transport more practical.

Childcare, and adult care: Your people may not be able to return fully until care also resumes. Adult carers and care homes have continued heroically through this crisis, though – as ever – the provision has been fraught with troubles, subject to lack of resources, and treated as something of an afterthought. Childcare and schools have transformed overnight to small hubs, serving the families of key workers and vulnerable children, only. They have resolutely pulled (Easter) rabbits out of hats, generating fun and learning while frantically sanitising and scrutinising for symptoms; fuelled – like adult care – by resilience, determination and love. Care provision of every kind will need to be opened up again to all, and with necessary adjustments and equipment, before the nation can function fully.

2. Working from Home at scale?

· It can be done: So the genie is out of the bottle regarding just how many jobs can be done from home. In an earlier article, I made a plea that we don’t judge the long-term viability based on the crisis arrangements: (seriously, people would normally have care provision). Still, with all its flaws, this hasty experiment has lifted the lid. Many people now want to work remotely at least some of the time, reduce their business travel and do more online. After all, who now would say that you need to meet ‘face-to-face’ in order to have the ‘human touch’, when shaking hands is so clearly out of fashion compared with a gentle nod, bow or wave; and when Skype, FaceTime, MS Teams, Google Hangouts or Zoom meetings are so blatantly face-to-face?

The question now is not so much whether, as how, we enable large-scale home working. There is a lot to consider here including tech set-up and nurturing team morale, but let's focus on just one aspect for now:

· Measuring performance: One matter to be addressed will be the balance between support and surveillance. While we’re in ‘all pull together’ mode, the emphasis rightly is on Support, with regular reach-outs and check-ins, virtual social gatherings.

As a sustainable work from home model in ‘peace’ time, though, we will need to put more flesh on the often-wheeled-out expression that we should measure contribution based on ‘outputs rather than presenteeism’. What does that actually mean, and how can managers action it? Whether in offices or remotely, we are still prone to noticing the person who is politically skilful, well-networked and visible, who is quick to take ‘high level’ credit for the late night grafting of others. What does ‘output’ mean? How do we value ‘contribution’?

· Tracking and ranking? Some tech innovators have these answers finely-honed. Crossover for Work with their WorkSmart system uses regular screenshots, keyboard activity, application use monitoring, webcam pics and other data to review time allocation and then assiduously ranks team members by quality and output achieved. While this may provoke a certain squeamishness among some, there is an honesty and objectivity behind it that has to be recognised. Lower performers in a team are then coached to adopt the practices of the top performers. Again, we might recoil on the basis of individual difference and working styles, but again it is a clear answer to some of those questions that are otherwise addressed only subjectively or not even acknowledged.

· Role objectives: However we approach it, there is no avoiding the need for manager and team member to have a very clear sense of role definition, strategic purpose of the role, team contingencies, stakeholders and measurable deliverables, even if done with a lighter touch.

3. People: Wellbeing and Purpose

· Prioritising wellbeing – the tired troops: We will need to pay real attention to our people and their wellbeing, whenever ‘normal’ working begins to resume. Those who have continued working through this time (whether onsite or from home) have made huge, sustained efforts and might meet a wall of exhaustion when the crisis mode is called off. Let’s think now what we can do to recognise and reward that, and even consult our people on what would be meaningful.

· The furloughed forlorn: Those who have been on furlough leave might be desperate to return; but then again they might have had time for a real think about what they want and how they view their employer and their career path. Or they may have started seeking other options because it just wasn’t at all clear that they’d be wanted or needed back. There may be fallout as to how well things were handled: was there consultation; was the selection for furlough seen as ‘fair’; have holidays been properly carried over; did people feel isolated, or on the other hand were they put under pressure to somehow carry on working informally for their employer?

· Preparing now, for our lasting brand: There will be a lot of listening and paying of attention to be done, and some of that can be eased by thinking ahead now on how we want to be viewed as employers. Every resource, service and benefit that we have in place to support and enhance wellbeing needs to be promoted and made available both now and ongoing. People who are on furlough leave can be kept informed (as far as they want to be) and encouraged to use services and benefits. But it will take more than that to support both those returning from furlough and those who have pushed on through. Some sense of empowerment and control will be key. Managers need the information and confidence to lead their teams back to the future. Teams can also be encouraged to find their own ways of recreating normal; and that can start now with empowering teams to create and manage their own expectations, including for example their own online meeting etiquette & guidelines, or their own plans for how they can play a part in a smooth return.

· Further training: As well as working to support wellbeing, we should keep our eye on wider online training. Not only for those on furlough to stay current in their technical field, or develop leadership skills, but also because people may now be working in a different world. Customer service skills have always taken account of customers being perhaps angry or disappointed. In some settings, customers and clients now may be actively frightened, by all sorts of day-to-day activities. Will returning staff be ready with the sensitivity and skill to move through that?

· Sense of purpose and shared values: There’s something more, too. It has long been clear that current generations in the workplace look for purpose at work, beyond a simple remuneration package. Perhaps now more than ever, employers will need to demonstrate value by having been on the right side in the war against coronavirus: did you do something to support the NHS or other good causes? Did you enable your people to do some community volunteering? Are your products and services relevant and worthwhile, now that we’ve had a bit of time to think about life and remember a few home truths about what we care about? Corporate values will matter. As another small example, Executive pay ratios were already under scrutiny in the UK and where, for example, senior leaders have taken a drop in pay during the pandemic in order to ease the need for layoffs and furloughs, there will be goodwill in the bank.

· Less of a war for talent? It is, however, possible that the balance of power will be shifted as the jobs market may be tougher for candidates. HRreview reports that The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) stated if the lockdown lasts for three months, unemployment will rise from 3.9% to 10%. Higher unemployment puts less pressure on the employer to be the greatest ever – a job itself may be enough – but the market may be quite fluid overall and, in rebuilding engagement, there’s no harm in trying to be the employer that employees are glad to come back to, or join afresh.

· Prioritise inclusion: Finally, on the people front: we could usefully consider redoubling our efforts on inclusive leadership. This means conscious efforts to include and reintegrate people with protected characteristics of every kind. On one aspect, gender, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has urged Governments to “put women and girls at the centre of their recovery efforts, including by making them leaders and equally involved in decision-making”. He says: “COVID-19 is not only a challenge to global health systems, but also a test of our human spirit, and a better world must emerge following the pandemic … Gender equality and women’s rights are essential to getting through this pandemic together, to recovering faster, and to building a better future for everyone”.

4. Care for the Carers

· Making it work: As under point 1. above, those with family to care for, need care in place to be fully functional and back at work. Here in the UK the option to place staff on furlough leave was – perhaps late in the day – extended to those unable to work through care responsibilities. Perhaps it’s best not to explore too deeply whether this introduced an awkward illusion of options. Did we really choose those ‘hilarious’ and competitively hammed-up pictures of home-working? Those with children climbing curtains beside the makeshift desk while a large glass of wine and plundered chocolate box occupy the foreground. Could we have taken furlough leave instead? In many cases, it won’t have been so clear-cut as to which people must work and which people might not. In an insecure economy, choice may not seem very real, for employer or employee. Whichever version of coping-alongside-family your people have achieved, they will have managed it with ingenuity and sustained effort. Their commitment to making this work also reflects the way that working parents and carers manage daily compromises, sacrifices and heroic multi-tasking in ordinary times. As employers, offering some support with care – whether practical care solutions or simply access to information and advice in finding care – can go a long way in making all that seem worthwhile. Those supporting older relatives may have had a particularly anxious time. Some have worried about their socially-isolated elderly parents where one is the primary carer for the other, and where one or both have some degree of dementia or physical frailty. Some help, in finding or securing respite care post lockdown might seem like a minor miracle. 

· More flexibility and agility: Be prepared not only for new requests to work from home but also for creative proposals around working hours. Many families will be extraordinarily keen to wave their children off to their nursery or nanny again, while some may have developed a taste for sharing staggered shifts of childcare with a partner. It takes stamina and determination, but some families may now start requesting to try this for a couple of days a week. As employers we need to think creatively too: be open to ideas, give proposals proper consideration, and also make it clear that – post lockdown – we do expect some form of reliable childcare to be in place when people are working, whether from home or otherwise.

· A place to think: I would say this of course but there’s a real place for a coach in this mix. Intelligent and specialist coaching for working parents and carers focusing on integrating career and family successfully will continue to be a huge practical and strategic help. As will helplines connecting working families with practical sources of help and information.

5. Legacy

In the UK, we’ve surprised ourselves before by being better at legacy than we expected. Boris Johnson was even a part of it. With London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games: the positive impact that came after was hard-wired in from the start. By contrast, COVID-19 is no run in the (Olympic) park but as we imagine our post-lockdown world, we have a huge opportunity to consider whether some kind of positive legacy could, potentially, come from this crisis.

· Just make it go away: There will be opposing forces at play in the new normal: pushes and pulls. There will be a seductive yearning to get back to normal. Steve Krug wrote a book in 2000 called Don't Make Me ThinkIt’s about human–computer interaction and web usability, but captures an important principle: that people are good at ‘satisficing’, or taking the first available solution to their problem (so web design should let users accomplish their intended tasks as easily and directly as possible). There’s a strong chance that we might all feel the urge to ‘get back to normal’ next in the easiest and most obvious ways we know and rush back to our bad habits as well as our brilliant ones.

· The economic imperative or a choice? There will be commercial and fiscal pressures to pick up frantically where we left off too. Julio Vincent Gambuto’s article Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting went viral on this, with 17 million views around the world. Gambuto urges us not to be persuaded to un-see what we have glimpsed in cleaner cities and simpler lives organised around caring for each other; not to blot it out with the same old consumption and competition mindset. He argues, with passion: “This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.”

· A radical rethink: I’ve found a great deal of inspiration for our times in the Climate Coaching Alliance group, founded by Coaching at Work magazine. Colleagues there highlight ways of thinking that link our ability to react and respond to this pandemic with the potential we have to take more urgent action on climate change. In one highlighted article, Clean air, but nothing to cheer about, Chandra Bhushan suggests we get over our shallow celebration of less pollution and bluer skies, mindful that emissions have swung back into place quickly enough in China. Lack of global economic activity does reduce pollution and carbon emissions, but only with concerted effort can we build on this realisation, rather than simply watch it all resume. Rethinking where and how we work – as above – surely plays some part in this.

· Hard-hitting warning: The other relevant message is that both climate and pandemic emergencies have human folly and greed at their source. For a succinct account of the ecological lessons we could take from this and other pandemics, Vandana Shiva, in A virus, humanity, and the earth pulls no punches when she writes: “Human greed, with no respect for the rights of other species or even for our fellow human beings, is at the root of this pandemic and future pandemics”. She notes that “70% of human pathogens, including HIV, Ebola, influenza, MERS and SARS, emerge when forest ecosystems are invaded and viruses jump from animals to humans … We have to shift from the economics of greed and limitless growth which has pushed us to an existential crisis”.

So, as we plan ahead for a well-managed return, we have a chance to re-envision our stance as employers, employees, nations and communities. But if we don't make an effort to chose that, the pull to the old norm will be strong. In all likelihood, we have some time now to think ahead about that.

And of course while we wait, the other daily task is to express our thanks, in whatever way we can, for all the wonderful people who work in medicine, nursing, caring, research, and so many essential, front-line roles and who are keeping us going day-to-day, so we can even consider a return. In a very small gesture, I made a point yesterday of thanking the smiling person who scanned my carefully-planned shopping: for being there, taking risks for me.

Jennifer Liston-Smith


Published 16th April 2020.