THE NEW (NOT SO) NORMAL

Several years ago, I suggested to my co-founder that I adopt the title “futurist.” I got cards printed, added it to my bio on the i4cp website, even updated my LinkedIn profile. I thought it was a great idea at the time—not so much anymore. This became very apparent when he said to me the other day, “Hey futurist—now would be a good time to write about the future.” 

Writing about the future is always precarious, even in the best of times. Today, however, it is virtually impossible. We are living in an unprecedented, historic period that will most likely have a profound impact on (and might permanently alter) how we live, work, and play. What makes this task even more difficult is the lack of information, the unknowns, and uncertainties.  

The coronavirus pandemic, and resulting global economic crisis, have produced more questions than answers. 

When will it be safe to fly?  Go on vacations?  Attend a sporting event, concert or conference? Go to a restaurant or bar to socialize?  When will schools and colleges open again?  When can I go back to work or go to the office?  Will our health care system collapse due to shortage of medical supplies, equipment, and professionals? And, what about the economy? How deep and long will the impact of the pandemic last? Will unemployment go to double digits? Or will it skyrocket to a range not seen since the 1930s? Will we tumble into another deep recession, or crash into a depression?  

In other words, will we ever return to our normal routines, or should we just accept that there will be a new normal 

The answer to these and other questions is, we don’t know. Sorry. Not great insight for someone who is a futurist 

A huge hole has been blown into the global economy as nations shut down local, national, and global commerce in order to enforce social distancing. And the economy will only start to return when the pandemic recedes, and no one really knows when that will occur. Right now, because of a severe deficit in testing, we do not have enough data to build accurate predictive models. Testing is currently focused on those who show symptoms. We don’t know how many people are asymptomatic but contagious, or, more important, how many have had mild or no symptoms, have recovered and now have antibodies.  

As a result, we don’t have accurate data on how infectious the virus is, or what the true mortality rate is, although this novel coronavirus strain has shown itself to be highly infective and very deadly. In addition, we know that it will take a while to have a working vaccine, despite a rushed schedule by the FDA and other overseers. It could be June, or maybe September or even February 2021 before there is relief from the pandemic and the economy opens again.  

When that happens there is some good news. Humans are social animals and there will be a desire to go out and be with other people. But even then, the economy will probably be slow to come back: 

  • It will take time before we feel comfortable and safe to fly, take a cruise (particularly) or even go on a vacation, especially where large crowds gather, like Disney World.
  • Business travel will be the first to return in earnest, but it will be tempered for a while, and there still could be travel restrictions between countries, regions, or even states.
  • Attending any event where there are large groups of people will be slow to come back.
  • Even going out for a meal, movie, or to just to socialize with friends will be slow to return. How many restaurants will have survived the economic crash, and will we feel comfortable and safe in such tight environments?
  • Will we feel safe in someone else’s car?  Or taking public transportation? Not knowing how clean it is or who was in it before me will be a concern for some time. As a result, calling Uber, Lyft, hailing a taxi, riding a bus, train, or subway will be slower to come back. Driving your personal vehicle will likely have a resurgence. 

When the dust settles and the economy begins to hum along again, we will also see that the world of work has changed and a new normal has developed. It doesn’t matter if you are a for-profit, NGO, or government organization—the work, the workplace, and the workforce are likely to be very different.  

Now, humor me while I act more like the futurist I’m supposed to be, and offer up some predictions: 

  • In a post-pandemic world, we will lessen our dependence on other nations to supply essential goods, particularly medical supplies, to have more local control of the supply chain.
  • Contingency planning will go to an entire new level, and there will be closer collaboration between complementary companies and industries to prepare for the next potential crisis.
  • Office buildings that are designed for open space for groups to gather, or closely packed cubicles (think of your typical WeWork office) will go away as more employees will want offices that create distance between their colleagues. Indeed, in the last couple of weeks you can bet that many CEOs and CFOs are even questioning the need for large office spaces that bring the workforce together.
  • In addition, executives are beginning to understand that the glue that holds organizations together is not the brand-new corporate headquarters. The new corporate currency is the organization’s invisible qualities of purpose, culture, and brand.
  • Now that thousands of executives have been forced to work from home for an extended period for perhaps the first time in their careers, organizations will be more comfortable with employees working where they want and when they want. Many organizations that resisted flexible work arrangements in the past now must accept new ways of working. While productivity fell in the first couple of weeks of masses moving to working remotely, performance is beginning to improve once individuals and teams adopted a routine.
  • Because of the new flexible work arrangements, managers are becoming more comfortable using platforms like Zoom, Slack, and Teams to communicate with their direct reports. It’s became evident that managers who are successful with remote teams are utilizing more softer skills.
  • Measuring performance and productivity of remote workers is still in development, but there are many companies making progress. Technology will play a huge role in this measurement.
  • HR will adopt new technology more effectively; during this crisis there has been no other option. Many of the HR activities that used to be done face-to-face had to be quickly redesigned, which has affected recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, performance reviews—all have had to move to a virtual format.
  • Providing learning and development for the workforce has also evolved. Many have found new appreciation for virtual instructor-led and other forms of online learning, and companies have rediscovered their LMS or new LXP platform. 

Beyond all of that, my biggest prediction is that despite the changes to come, we will adapt just fine. The human species is very innovative and resilient. Children will return to school, colleges will reopen, workplaces will rebound. We will begin to gather and socialize again. The economy will work its way out of the crisis.  

But it will never be exactly the same as it was. There will be a new normal. And maybe I’ll even keep my job as a futurist.