“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
I recently saw this quote from Sonya Renee Taylor circling my friends’ Stories on Instagram and it made me think about the word “normal.” Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I heard people talk about wanting to return to normal and now, as restrictions are lifting, I’m hearing people rejoice that we’re getting back to normal. Vaccinations are being rolled out. Masks are coming off. People are getting together in homes, at weddings, and returning to their offices and businesses.
However wonderful it sounds, Sonya’s quote reminded me that rushing back to “normal” should be with caution. What is “normal” anyway?
Normal isn’t inclusive. It promotes the idea that there’s a category of not normal, of other, and different. The pandemic has resulted in a “growing awareness that one group’s “new normal” is another group’s “business as usual.” This couldn’t be more apparent than in our workplaces. Many organizations, that were opposed to working virtually, were forced to adapt and send employees home to work. Others were forced to realize that some industries and jobs just can’t be done from just anywhere.
As we transition into the post-pandemic economy, many organizations are itching to call employees back into the office. They are changing and updating policies to include: virtual or telecommuting requirements, social distancing guidelines, and uniform updates. They are reconfiguring office spaces and investing in new media to reach younger generations.
While these policies and practices are up for review, here are three things every organization should commit to:
Commit to understanding your people.
In conducting workforce research for clients, I’ve heard many leaders express that they “know what it’s like'' to work in front-line, junior-level, or hourly roles because they once were in those positions. The truth is times have changed since leaders walked in the shoes of employees. The employment experience has evolved even further from that time thanks to the pandemic.
Leaders can’t assume they understand what employees are going through, how they feel about working or the organization, or what they want in an employment experience.
It’s time for organizations to invest in understanding the new employment experience through the eyes, hearts, and minds of employees. If leaders want to create strong relationships with employees, they need to know how employees feel, and what they need and want. Start with researching what employees like and dislike about their experience. Seek out employee stories that get at the core of the experience—good and bad. Ask for feedback from employees and share how the organization will take action based on that feedback. Follow-up, share results, and demonstrate a true commitment to respecting the feedback.
Commit to accepting their authenticity.
At exaqueo, we pride ourselves on our mantra “if you are authentic, you have no competition” and our long-standing belief that people should bring their whole selves to work. The pandemic has brought these two notions to light for many organizations. Working from home has forced people to merge life and work together, and given coworkers a look at pets, children, and the inside of colleagues’ homes. Thirty-nine percent of people say they’re more likely to be their full, authentic selves at work when compared to just one year ago.
Now more than ever, employers must recognize and embrace authenticity, and weave it into the fabric of their company culture. But how?
In our 2021 Gen Z Early Career Employment Study, we found that one in three early careerists ranked family-friendly policies as the most important job attribute when considering employment opportunities. They want employers to “be more understanding of personal situations,” be that family, mental health, or disabilities. Being more inclusive and understanding of employees’ situations will strengthen the relationship between employers and employees. In other words, committing to your employees now in a way that’s authentic and supportive will build trust and loyalty in the long-run.
Commit to maintaining flexibility.
Working virtually isn’t for everyone or every organization. Many careers in manufacturing or healthcare simply cannot be done virtually. Some people don’t have the internet speed or physical space to work from home. On the other hand, working parents may want to work virtually at times to handle gaps in child care coverage. Women returning to the workforce from maternity leave may need flexible schedules as they figure out their balance between job and home responsibilities. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to work.
According to Microsoft’s recent study, “over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams.” Employers won’t be able to retain employees without flexibility. But, flexibility may mean different things to different people.
Take the opportunity now to ask employees what flexibility means to them, listen to feedback, and evaluate company policies. These insights will allow leaders to nurture the flexibility the pandemic created, rather than enforce a strict,100 percent return-to-the-office mandate.
Make it part of the company culture that employees are trusted to get their work done where and how they want. Acknowledge there are certain things—training, new hire orientation, team building—that are better accomplished in the office and in-person. Create guidelines for working virtually that are defined and equitable, and that aren’t rigid or full of unnecessary legal language. And please, call it “virtual work” and not “remote work.”
To truly create a workplace where employees can thrive and go all in, employers have to go beyond policies and truly commit to their employees—in real, visible ways. Or they risk losing them to the resignation wave. Whether you’re trying to attract the next generation of talent or retain current employees, now is the time to embrace change and firmly vow to never go back to “normal.”