Blog Post

It’s Not About a New Normal: Mistakes to Avoid in 2021

Ira S. Wolfe

President, Success Performance Solutions

All of us at one time or another have woken up from a deep sleep and didn’t know where we were. We jump out of bed and stub our toe on the corner of the bed. We eventually find the light switch and pull back the curtains. Finally, a sudden burst of clarity washes over us, which reminds us that we’re traveling for business or visiting a friend. We breathe a sigh of relief and calm our pounding heart. While the room is still unfamiliar, we’re okay.

Welcome to 2021.

After a very long 12 months, we see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But let’s not pop the corks and unleash the celebrations quite yet. This desire to find normal is fraught with problems.

Heidi Spirgi, chief strategy and growth officer at Cornerstone, summed it perfectly during a recent mini-summit webinar on adaptability: "Too many businesses are stuck on the notion that the new normal will be one single, homogeneous experience. That’s a mistake!"

Normal evolves. Normal isn’t static. Normal isn’t even perceived the same way by different people. Before March 2020, working from home full-time wasn’t that normal. Only 17% of people worked remotely. Today, it’s normal for some 44% of the population.

We must seize this opportunity to learn new behaviors and unlearn daily norms that no longer work (or never really worked). As we close the book on past assumptions and adjust our mindsets to the ever-evolving "normal," here are three mistakes to avoid from Spirgi and the other experts who joined me for the adaptability webinar.

Don’t Make a New Normal Your Destination

I hate to break the news to you, but like the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, normal isn’t real either. Spirgi shared during the aforementioned panel discussion, "I struggle with the term normal. Return to normal, back to normal, or even the belief that we are going to somehow establish a new normal. That's a mistake. The world is changing too fast. The world of work and its workplace will be anything but static."

She’s right. Thinking about normal as one common experience shared by all is sheer fantasy. The reality of the future we face is multiple, simultaneous futures, washing over us like unpredictable waves. And as much as we try to put normal in a box, no two futures will be exactly alike.

Look no further than all the visions promoted for the future of remote work; from working from home full-time, to working from home 2 or 3 days each week, to returning to a centralized office full time. Your best bet: be prepared to surf multiple waves of new normals.

Don’t Overcorrect with Micromanaging

Companies are going to overcorrect, according to Mary Faulkner, principal at IA-HR, whose firm helps organizations navigate transformation. "They’ve been freewheeling for nearly a year," she says. "Many organizations offered flexibility to employers so they could juggle work, kids, school, caregiving and everything else life threw at us." But once things stabilize, Faulkner worries the tendency will be for management to mandate behaviors by rules and regulations, to micromanage how and when work gets done. "I hope they don't do that. I hope companies...don’t just try to draw another box around how work gets done," she says.

Now is the time to reimagine how and where work can get done and how to retrain, upskill and reskill employees. The past year exposed the fragility of a bureaucratic management style in a world of fluid change. The road back to growth and opportunity is not paved by rules, regulations and micromanagement. Oversight needs to be based less on telling people what to do and more on reskilling employees and supporting them with the tools they need to make smart decisions.

Don’t Assume 2020 Was Just a Blip

The biggest mistake leaders can make, warns AQai co-founder Ross Thornley, is "thinking that the changes we experienced in 2020 were exceptions, not the rule. AQai is developing a framework to help boost individual change readiness. "The events of 2020 weren’t a one-time blip. Our world won’t slow down and neither will the pace of change. 2020 was just the beginning."

The change foisted on the world in 2020 caused many businesses and people to reinvent themselves on the fly. 2020 taught us we can adapt. But adaptation is not a one-time event. We’ve got to become great at continual reinvention. We need to become adept at adapting. We’re going to be living in an era of perpetual uncertainty. Business and community leaders will need to figure out quickly how to prepare millions of workers to adapt to the relentless and continuous waves of new futures headed our way.

Reimagining our world means each one of us will have to rethink our roles, our relationships, our work, and our environment. Embrace this disruption as an opportunity for a do-over, a time to recalibrate how we live, how we work, how we play. Vision how change can work for you, not against you. Begin to think about the future in different ways. Focus on possibilities, not uncertainty. We can’t control the future but we can learn to navigate it better. Frame the future as a journey, not a destination. Most of all, learn to enjoy the ride.

For more advice about coping with constant change, read more from Ira Wolfe or check out Cornerstone’s webinar, "How Organizations Can Thrive in the Next Normal."

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