A Two-Year-Long Blip in Our Work Lives

Nearly two years ago, the entire world of work and rest of the world battened down the hatches to slow the spread of COVID-19. Following a period of what might be described as one part shock and another part fight-or-flight cooperation, most of us began to brainstorm how we might return to normal or some semblance of a future not unlike the past. It’s been justifiable, the hope to get back to the way things had been for as long as we could remember. Those conversations are still happening. The return has yet to come.

Two years is no longer a blip. The new normal is just that. It’s normal now. The word new does not connote anything other than that the new normal is novel, just like the coronavirus that prompted our new predicament. New here has no association with positivity, nothing to do with hopeful expectation or with anything better than the actual normal that preceded it—not that it can’t be any of these things; it certainly can. Ultimately, however, it’s just new, period.

Just like anything new does, the new normal will get old to the point that we’ll forget it ever was new. What does this mean? Set aside all hopes for a return to the previous normal. It’s probably not coming back. This is nothing to cheer, let alone lament. It’s just something to recognize. The only organizations that will succeed in the near future of work are those that recognize the new normal is here to stay and reformulate the calculus for their relationship with their employees accordingly—full stop.

Make sure that your interest in your employees’ experience does not wane—does not get old. Even if, in a fever dream, the new normal were to give way to the old normal, finally and for good, the employee’s expectation that your organization value and strive to improve the employee experience would not go away. Your employees have tasted the alternative, you see. The employee experience has always been there as subtext, and the new normal has awakened the everyday person to expect the organization to whom they devote so many of their waking hours to respect and protect and elevate their station in the overall assessment of your organization’s value.

Ask yourself: Is this not logical?

HR needs to find its way into this new normal, by the way. HR was originally built around an idea behind the employer-employee relationship that is also never coming back. HR was always the muscle behind this old normal of employee-employer dynamics. So, HR’s hand in a positive employee experience is anything but readily apparent, let alone intrinsic. Centralization was the name of the game in the old normal. The new normal demands that we pay attention to the decentralized, day-to-day manager-employee relationship. Where does HR sit in this equation? It’s why some speak of the need to reimagine HR. I agree. The question is, can HR transform to be reconcilable with a decentralized approach to managing these internal dynamics?

We’ve published a research note around these ideas, “Choose Your Own Adventure: Returning to the Workplace, Protecting the Employee Experience.” A return to the workplace amidst a pandemic has been fraught with tough decisions often made in the absence of solid data. In detailing our findings and expanding understanding of the issue, our goal with this report is to provide a take that might mitigate the fog. The need to protect the employee experience is an inescapable business imperative. To do so, leaders need an ever-growing trove of benchmarks to help guide their decision-making. This is especially so for leaders in human capital management and wherever the workforce interacts with an employer, as HR’s fundamental role in these efforts will continue to evolve.

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