Predicting the next normal

Thursday 23rd April 2020

With the UK entering a second month of lockdown, it is perhaps an opportune time to reflect on all that has changed and to take more than a little pride in the resilience and adaptability shown by individuals, families and businesses across the UK.

One of the driving forces behind the spirit shown is an acceptance that whilst things may never be quite the same again, we also know that this is a temporary situation and we will get through this together.

As we start to look forward, we may wonder what the next normal will look like. What will we have learned from our collective experience and how will this shape our future? With this in mind, let’s take a look at five things businesses are learning from the lockdown.

What is more important than where

The current crisis has forced businesses to radically reassess the physical workplace and question whether the need to spend nearly an hour each day commuting comes from habit or necessity. Then again, whilst remote working can reduce the size and cost of office space required, do employees operate more productively at home or in a group? In short, what does the physical workplace offer that the digital one doesn’t.

Of course, the answers will vary greatly between industries, job roles, geographic locations and business cultures. Just because an employee can work from home doesn’t mean that they should. Nevertheless, questions are being asked and new answers given, and the next normal is likely to see a significant increase in remote workers, seamlessly and securely connecting with colleagues, customers and suppliers.

An additional learning from the current experience is that working remotely and working from home are two different things. Sitting at the kitchen table, sharing bandwidth with teenagers and breaking off for the odd household chore, may be ok in an emergency but it’s unlikely to work long term.

A strategic remote working decision requires an elastic digital workplace which includes the creation of structures and disciplines specifically designed for remote workers. Even when properly planned, it still won’t work for everyone, but the lockdown has shown that it can work for far more people than we might imagine.

In-person meetings aren’t as important as we thought

Research shows that attending unnecessary face to face meetings costs the average business over £35K per year. That’s a total of £191b spent nationwide on meetings which deliver little or no value.

Faced with restrictions on travel, businesses have switched to video conferencing in a large way and the exception is now the rule. The more we do it, the more natural it seems and it has become clear that a better utilisation of technology, combined with a realisation that many meetings can just as easily take place via a brief video or audio call, can help businesses cut costs and improve operational efficiency.

It is also worth noting that as a direct result of reduced travel during the lockdown, some cities have seen a reduction in air pollution of up to 60%. This is a significant but temporary benefit, as the numbers will rise again when things get back to normal, but it is a stark reminder that every time we travel to a needless in-person meeting, we risk emitting unnecessary carbon with every mile driven.

This is not to say that face to face meetings offer no value at all. Human contact is fundamental to who we are, building trust and relationships in a way that virtual meetings struggle to match. As a result, the next normal is likely to put a question mark against how meetings are conducted. There is no default option anymore, a conscious decision will need to be made.

Even when travel is warranted, being more aware of the fiscal and environmental costs of every meeting should prompt us to carefully consider how we make each journey. The ‘planet healing’ taking place during the lockdown cannot continue at the same rate, but better use of public transportation and low or zero emission vehicles can help minimise the environmental impact of in-person meetings.

“What if?” is a protection and an opportunity

One of the most incredible aspects of the lockdown has been the speed at which everything changed. Projects stopped, supplies drained away and the movement of both people and goods became more challenging than ever before.

Almost every business in the UK has been affected in some way and yet, despite the inevitable short-term disruption, standard working practices and IT infrastructures which took years to develop have been overhauled in a matter of weeks, if not days.

This recent experience is likely to affect how businesses look at managing people, projects and supply chains in the future. The number of “what if?” scenarios has expanded exponentially and the need to have systems and processes in place to react to even the most unexpected scenarios is now essential for businesses of all sizes.

However, the real difference will be how we look at what is possible, how fast things can change if needed, and whether the changes brought about by a disaster recovery situation are a better way of working anyway. Managing change and risk in the future is likely to be firmly centred on finding ways of working that rely less on physical infrastructure and more on location independent flexibility.

Good employee relationships are built on trust

The current pandemic has brought the relationship between employer and employee into sharp focus, requiring a stronger reliance on trust and support from both sides. Reduced employee visibility concentrates business measurement on actions and outputs rather than hours. It means an employee is judged on what they do and the value they bring, not just when or how long they spend doing it.

On the other hand, employees must be able to trust the companies they work for, knowing that they will be properly looked after, even when it is financially or practically difficult to do so.

Leadership in times of crisis is important, but there will be an increased expectation that businesses support employees in areas which may have typically been thought of as personal responsibilities, such as childcare, home WIFI or personal health. In doing so, the relationship on both sides will change from being based largely on contractual obligations to one that is rooted in value, trust and respect.

Customers can help businesses help them

The sudden change in circumstances forced many businesses to instigate restrictions on customer behaviour. In response, many customers insisted that their needs were put first. But, as the crisis developed, attitudes started to change, and a greater understanding emerged on both sides.

The primary reason for this change was that businesses of all types started to see that by providing higher levels of information and transparency, customers were helped to behave in a way that improved the service that everyone receives.

The principle in play here can be seen in a scenario unconnected with the current situation. We have all sat in an aircraft coming into land and heard the head steward explain that handing back unused items and rubbish helps the next flight leave on time. Punctual planes are something we all want and so we happily help.

Applying this principle on a wider scale will mean that companies who engage in a more open relationship with customers, rather than trying to influence behaviour through strict controls or a path of least resistance, will benefit from higher levels of customer engagement, increased loyalty and improved profitability.

The next normal

In truth, no one really knows the full extent to which individuals, businesses and communities will be affected by the current crisis. The next normal will evolve over the coming weeks, months and years. Some of the changes we see will be challenging and some will be positive. The difference between the two may largely depend on the lessons we learn from our current experience.

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