As businesses reopen and employees return to work, conversations have turned to when things will go back to “normal” and what “normal” might now look like. But for organisational psychologist Heather Bingham, going “back to normal” is an interesting concept. 

Yes, the pandemic has been the biggest global crisis since the Second World War and yes, it has tested each of us in ways that we could not have imagined, putting great strain on our healthcare system, food supply chain and economy. But we should not dismiss the positives that have also emerged in the face of adversity.

Some of BOOST&Co’s principals have noted that economic uncertainty can present opportunities for innovative businesses to flourish, just as they did following the 2008 financial crisis. Our head of People, Jenefer Morgan, has discussed, alongside leadership expert Charles Towers-Clark, the new working practices that have evolved during Covid-19, improving work-life balance for employees and increasing productivity for businesses.

Rarely do we consider moving backwards to be a positive thing, so why, in the wake of a crisis, are we all so desperate to go “back to normal”? In this vein, Bingham offers two lessons for businesses, encouraging them to disregard previous assumptions, avoid “normal” and turn their focus to the future instead. 

Lesson #1: the normal way isn’t always the right way 

Drawing parallels with the Three-Day Week

In the 1970s, a combination of high inflation and government-capped public sector pay led to industrial action that adversely affected the production of coal. At the time, the UK was far more reliant on coal-fired power stations than it is today, so it was not long before electricity fell into short supply. In 1974, the situation became so severe that commercial consumption of electricity was limited to just three days a week; schools and businesses closed, public services were disrupted and there were lengthy queues for food and essentials. 

Sound familiar?

The situation was open-ended: a significant percentage of the population lost 40% of their income overnight and a great number of people found themselves in cold homes with nothing to do. Just as we are experiencing amid the pandemic, people experienced real suffering, and death rates increased as the nation struggled to keep warm and fed through the winter. 

Productivity in the face of adversity

Whether driven by solidarity with the strikers or with the government, those who could continue to work knuckled down. To the amazement of business leaders, staff could do just as much in three days, without overtime, as they usually achieved in five days with overtime. Some resorted to “old” technologies such as candles and oil lamps to enable them to keep going; others just worked quicker and harder. In response, there was genuine excitement among the establishment: this would herald a new dawn of productivity that would catapult the UK beyond competing nations and make Britain “great again”.

The disappointing reality

The reality was a stark disappointment. The UK returned almost overnight to the exact levels of productivity it had recorded in 1973. Businesses were quick to focus on re-establishing supply chains and neglected to address any lessons learned around productivity with a reduced workforce. Relieved that it was all over, and perhaps reluctant to continue breaking their backs, workers quickly relaxed into their old ways and the great British productivity dream was over before it had begun.

Bingham is particularly interested in this rapid reversal of productivity when she considers how businesses are responding to the return of employees to work during the pandemic. “As in 1974, those who have been able to work during the crisis have been inundated – particularly key workers, who have demonstrated extraordinary stamina from the outset,” she says. “But in other sectors, employees have been using this time to work smarter, using technologies that were already in place, but perhaps underused or used inefficiently.

“There are indications that we can come out of the crisis stronger and buck the trend of the 1974 productivity decline, but only if we take stock of these lessons and make a conscious effort to keep hold of the positives – whether they be new technologies or different ways of doing things. Businesses will need to assess which elements of home-working or changed processes have really worked for them, and then be brave and encourage employees to embrace the changes, even if that means throwing out the ‘back to normal’ sentiment,” she says.

Lesson #2: now is not the time for assumptions

Equipping your business for the return of your team

For some companies, long-held assumptions will be a key obstacle to doing things differently. The idea that workers are less productive when they are at home, for example, is a concept that many businesses will have found to be false during this time, but there will be other assumptions that take root as a result of the coronavirus crisis, and it will be just as important for business leaders to address these too. 

“It is useful to remember that each of us has experienced the lockdown differently and will respond to returning to work differently,” Bingham says. “Even if you are not an employer who is handling the return of furloughed–  or perhaps newly employed – staff, the differing emotional response of individuals is something that needs to be handled delicately.”

Fast-forward to 2020

To illustrate her point, Bingham fast-forwards 46 years, from 1974 to 2020:

A husband and wife with a son, aged nine, and a daughter, aged 16, live in central London. Both parents work: the mother is the breadwinner, with a role in the City, while the father works from home in a creative role. The children attend local schools.

The mother was furloughed in March and she is receiving the maximum amount allowed by the government’s scheme, but the father’s work has increased. The studious daughter was expecting to sit important exams in May, while the son is being fed a steady stream of work from his school.

In the next few weeks, the mother is going back to work, returning to her usual role. The father’s increased workload looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. The son will go back to school soon and the daughter is still waiting for news on the outcome of her cancelled exams.

Projection is in our nature

What assumptions did you make while reading the passage above? Did you assume that:

In this scenario, Bingham gives us the opportunity to project our own feelings on to someone else’s situation. By omitting names and any detail, she allows our brains to fill in the blanks, while our emotions inform our expectations. Aside from the examples above, there are dozens of feelings that we might (incorrectly) project on to the situation. 

Assumptions are problematic

The problem with making these assumptions is that they can be wildly inaccurate. We might read “the mother is going back to work” and assume that she will be sad to leave her family behind, but she could actually be desperate to get back on the sweaty Underground each day to get away from them!

In the context of returning to work, this means that business leaders must continue to listen and respond to individuals’ feelings and views, rather than assuming that everyone they work with will feel the same way that they do. 

The idea that a mother is desperate to get back to work and away from her family, for example, could feel a little insulting to a key worker who has spent most of the lockdown away from their family to keep them safe. Likewise, if you were conscientious during the lockdown, even though living alone made you feel sad and depressed at times, how would you feel if, upon returning to work, your boss made jokes about being relieved to leave their family at home once more? 

Business leaders should expect a similar variety of responses to the decisions that they made during Covid-19. “You might be a business owner who is proud that they acted decisively, keeping the business going with only half the workforce, while furloughing the other half,” Bingham says. “How will you feel if one of your team returns to work and is actually resentful of the colleagues who were not furloughed?”

Science can give us clarity

“Plutchik’s Evolutionary Wheel of Emotions is a model that can help us to consider the range of emotions that employees may have experienced during Covid-19 and upon returning to work,” Bingham says. “Using this kind of tool can help us to achieve a shared understanding of the rubbish we’ve all dealt with and prevent any negative feelings from festering.”

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Based on the concept of eight primary emotions (joy v sadness; anger v fear; trust v disgust; and surprise v anticipation), these bipolar pairs are intended to provide a shortcut to understanding individuals’ emotional responses. The expanded version pictured to the right provides a more detailed insight.

If we return to Bingham’s fictional family, it is easy to identify at least four emotions from the diagram that any member could be experiencing at one time. It is also easy to see how they might actually be feeling the opposite of our first impressions. Employers need to take this information on board and integrate it into their approach as employees return, always keeping assumptions at bay.

The post-coronavirus world is bright from Bingham’s point of view, but only if we make the effort to learn from the positives, understand the negatives and be brave enough to say “what is normal anyway?”

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