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Do We Really Want a Return to Our Pre-COVID Work Lives?

Lessons learned from the pandemic could improve our organizations and our lives

Last March, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Since that time, our personal and professional lives have been disrupted in countless ways. In recent weeks, though, as more and more people have been vaccinated, there is increasing speculation on when things will “return to normal” and how companies and their employees should prepare for this return.

Although there is evidence that many people are eager to return to the office, there is also growing recognition that, even when it is safe to return to work, organizational life will never be the same. For many organizations and employees this should be considered a positive development. In fact, the past 12 months have highlighted how many of our old ways of working left much to be desired.

Thus, rather than a return to the pre-pandemic “normal,” we should instead be mindful of some of the positive trends that emerged over the past year and seek to make them a more frequent and permanent fixture of our professional and personal lives.

Here are four noteworthy developments, in particular, that should continue to be a part of our new normal:

(1) Appreciation for frontline workers. During the pandemic the contributions of frontline workers were in the spotlight. Those working in schools, hospitals, supermarkets, restaurants, public transportation, and other essential roles finally received some of the recognition and gratitude they deserve.

Generally speaking, too many workers feel unappreciated at work, which is unfortunate given that employee recognition is essential for motivating and retaining employees. Around the world, though, we increased our awareness and appreciation of the myriad ways that other people, particularly those at the lowest levels of an organization, make our way of life possible. Moving forward, it is important for managers to remember and recognize the valuable work that is being done in their organizations, especially by those on the frontlines whose contributions are often overlooked.

(2) Schedule flexibility. As a result of lockdowns, many employees were forced to work remotely from home. Working from home is likely to become increasingly common, with organizations currently developing hybrid work plans and employees facing complicated decisions about whether (and how much) to work remotely or in person.

Although the benefits (and costs) of telecommuting can vary depending on each employee’s circumstances, many employees have benefited from having greater control over their work schedules and being judged more on their results than on the amount of time they spend at work. Employees who have demonstrated that they are capable of managing their own schedule and accomplishing their tasks should be given more control over their work schedules and routines, something that can have important implications for their effectiveness and well-being.

(3) Autonomy and empowerment. Without their supervisors around them, many employees have also felt more empowered to make decisions about their work and the best way complete their assignments. When employees have more control over their work, it not only reduces their stress, but also increases their motivation and willingness to take on additional responsibilities.

Employees who feel empowered also tend to feel healthier and more resilient. Delegating more responsibility to employees can also make managers’ lives easier by freeing them up to focus on more important tasks and problems. Given the benefits of autonomy, then, organizations should look for additional ways to empower their workers and be careful of disempowering them when employees return to their place of work.

(4) Work-life balance. Particularly at the start of the pandemic, many people were able to find more time to spend with their families. Family meals became more common, and quarantined families made board games popular again. In large metropolitan areas, commuter traffic fell dramatically, and employees who once had lengthy commutes spent less time stressed and caught in traffic (although too many employees spent their extra time working); business travel also decreased dramatically, and some employees even found time for napping.

As a result of these developments, many workers were able to achieve better work-life balance than was possible prior to the pandemic. Work-family conflict undermines employees’ satisfaction, commitment, and performance; it can also take a toll on their physical and psychological well-being. Therefore, moving forward, organizations should design work arrangements that minimize the likelihood that employees’ work takes away from their family and leisure time.

The pandemic has changed our way of life, perhaps permanently. However, as organizations and managers seek to figure out what the “new normal” will look like, they should be mindful of the ways employees’ personal and professional lives have been improved over the past year. Instead of going back to the way things were done before, managers should seek to build upon the gains that (at least some) employees experienced in terms of increased recognition, flexibility, autonomy, and work-life balance during the pandemic. More importantly, organizations should be careful that their actions do not reverse these gains.

We are entering a period of transition. For employees, this is likely to be a time of uncertainty and anxiety, which means that managers should regularly communicate with their employees about what the future may hold. For organizations, it is a good time for experimentation and finding ways to build a better post-pandemic workplace. As such, thoughtful managers should collaborate with their employees to find out what has worked (and what has not) and use that information to create an environment that will enable their employees to thrive as we transition to a new world of work.

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