Can we sustain the New Normal?

Jun 30 2010 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

We've been hearing a lot of talk lately about the "New Normal" in business. Heck, I've even used the term myself on The Working Week podcast. I know what people mean when they use it- with all the changes in technology, organizational structure and financing that have taken place, it's the way we do business now as opposed to 4 or 5 years ago.

The problem is that I'm not sure it's normal, and it's not even all that new. Worse, I don't believe it's sustainable and there will be a new, New Normal before we even get the new employee handbooks printed.

While people can harrumph, grunt and whine about the exact details, as far as I can see, the New Normal looks like this:

First, more of us will work on a short-term, contract and part time basis. Business Week magazine in the US estimates that by 2012 over 20% of the workforce will fall into these categories. The managers of today and tomorrow will be working more and more with people over whom they don't have direct line-of-sight control. Long live the matrixed organisation (not to be confused with The Matrix which was just as confusing but way cooler).

Second, telework and remote working will be on the rise. Some of this will be fall under the label of "green " initiatives but it will mostly be about reducing the amount of money spent on office space and travel. Whether HR policies and management metrics reflect this reality is an open question.

Third, forget travel for meetings and training. No one has any budget and even if you have the budget, your boss isn't about to authorize a whole day or (heavens forbid) two days for a training class. Virtual communication is the norm. Does anyone really know what that means or how to do it well?

AS a result of all this, employee engagement scores will continue to drop meaning the employees you have don't have much of a stake in your company's success while the number of your top employees looking to jump ship at the first opportunity will rise dramatically. Enjoy.

So if this is the New Normal, it won't be for long. We simply can't sustain it. I don't mean it's not acceptable - human beings have worked with unacceptable conditions through most of our evolution - I mean it's not physically sustainable. The human body wasn't meant to work this way and it's going to cause real problems before too long.

As Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working and the brains behind "Take Back Your Lunch Day" points out, the human body was never designed for the kind of 24/7, always connected, remote workplace. We have four basic needs, and the current state of things doesn't support any of them particularly well:

The physical needs of the human body include things like sleep, rest and exercise. Being stuck at a desk or hunched over a blackberry at 2 in the morning to answer a question that could probably wait until a decent hour is not only stressful, it's downright destructive.

We need 6 ½ to 8 hours of sleep a night and most Americans are running on less than 6. Slaving over a hot keyboard doesn't qualify as exercise and remote workers tend to work longer hours than people who trek to the office every day.

Emotionally, we need to connect to other people. In the "old normal" there was human interaction on a regular basis, even if it was just to sing Happy Birthday to Eleanor and get a piece of stale yellow cake. As we work remotely, do managers and workers have the ability to form sustaining (and sustainable) human connections?

Mentally we aren't working to our best abilities. Multi-tasking is a misnomer. We don't really do 17 things at once, we're doing one thing for a short period of time, interrupting ourselves and moving to the next email or Instant Message.

Study after study shows that performance inevitably drops when we multitask, and in fact people who answer email every time a new one comes in perform at the same level as people who have done three shots of tequila…while having a lot less fun

Finally, we need spiritual connection and meaning in our work. Without a sense of guiding purpose we are depressed, detached and unengaged. Sound like anyone you know?

Here's my point. Unless organizations and individuals figure out a way to understand, accept and learn the coping skills to work with this "New Normal" (which is really the "For the Moment Normal"), we'll digress past where we are now and wind up with something even worse.

So what's in place to help your employees understand what's going on? What help are your managers getting in developing the new coping skills?

Yeah, that's kind of what I thought.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.