upside down reflection of an empty pool deck
PHOTO: Jordan Crawford

Everyone, including me, has been talking about working in the “new normal.” But this mindset has a few issues. The first is we aren't in a new normal — we're in an interim state. Any new normal is a long way off, so don't be settling down into any new routines just yet. Now is the time to prepare for what's next.

Society is trying to figure out when we should start returning to work. What will that look like? Obviously, less travel will be involved, but what will your normal local office days looks like? Some people want to return to the office. Others won’t want to take the chance. How do we take advantage of being able to work in person again while leveraging the lessons we are learning now?

The Human Element

The first part of this is a people challenge. Not everyone is ready to return to the office. High-risk people want to be safe. And since the onset of the pandemic we've seen that people can deliver value, and in some cases, create even more value while working from home.

People are advocating for a continuation of remote work in part because of this. Unfortunately that isn't realistic either. Not everyone has good office space at home and distractions like kids, dogs and more make many long for a return to the company office.

A final point: people are social animals. Many people thrive in an office because they feed off the energy of others. Having a place to go, even if only for a few days a week, is important to them. Morale and productivity get a boost as a result.

Related Article: We May Never Go Back to Work as We Know It (and That's OK)

Questions for the Transition Stage

We need to better organize our physical workplaces. Clearly the old layout won't work. Space, ventilation, cleaning protocols and positioning of desks all require careful consideration. And with limited seating, an online reservation system for seating will become necessary. The last thing you need is half of the organization showing up when you’ve eliminated two-thirds of the seats.

The real challenge will be meetings. We’re all currently suffering from Zoom fatigue. After six hours of back to back Zoom calls the other day, my eyes, brain and butt were all suffering. So what needs to be a meeting? Can the topic be resolved by a quick online chat or a phone call?

And when you really, truly need a meeting, rethink how that meeting should work.

Related Article: Working Remotely: A Manager's Perspective

Advanced Meeting Needs 

Brainstorming and design meetings are two that have suffered during this transition to online collaboration. Both work better in person. While some cool technology solutions can improve the remote experience, most people don't have them in their home office. Until they do, it will be important to find a way to hold these in person with key remote participants.

Some of this will entail new tools. Design thinking leans heavily on Post-It notes to get people involved. What would replicate this interaction to make the experience better for remote employees?

More importantly, if in-person meetings become restricted to these types of meetings, then the meeting room itself changes. The big table disappears, and everyone instead has a chair with a flip-up table for taking notes. That makes spreading out easier and helps keep people focused on the goal of the meeting, which is no longer a meeting but a working session.

Related Article: The Evolution of Meetings Has Long-Term Effects

Our Future Balancing Act

In the new normal, we'll never again have meetings where every key player is in the same room for every discussion. We'll need to capture and encourage those important contributions, even when they are on the other side of the digital world.

Finding the right balance between the physical and virtual workplace will determine our success in the eventual new normal. It will take new tools and new attitudes. And successful companies will start figuring it out now.