The New Normal: A Kinder, More Human Workplace

min read

Whenever we emerge in a post-pandemic world, our new normal should reinforce what we are learning: that we are more than the jobs we do.

butterfly emerging from a cocoon suspended from a branch with multicolored leaves
Credit: mcherevan / © 2020

"This is nice," I said to my wife as we sat in the front yard watching our three boys ride their bikes up and down our neighborhood street. How odd to experience a moment of peace and clarity during what feels like the end of the world.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced our family into isolation, as it has done to most other people, and there is so much about it that hasn't been "nice." Most of it, in fact, has been devastatingly terrifying and tragic.

But in occasional and small glimpses, this forced isolation and reckoning with our humanness and frailty has reminded our little family to slow down and pay attention to each other and the things that matter. We've been outside more, and we've been more active. We've gardened together more. We've paused more to play board games, read books, and share quiet moments. In our fear and uncertainty, we've seen one another more vividly and have drawn closer together.

I've seen this happening in my workplace as well.

Many of us, especially those of us in "non-essential" roles or industries, have found ourselves isolated in our homes. The lucky among us have been able to continue working in some sort of remote fashion, no longer sitting in our offices or at our desks and instead perhaps sitting at our kitchen tables among empty breakfast plates.

In our better moments at work these past few months, we've been sensitive to the human costs of living through a pandemic. We've been aware of each other's upended lives, and we've seen one another more vividly for who we are. We're people with kids home from school for who-knows-how-long. We're people with elderly or sick family members who need closer and more careful attention. We're people who are exhausted, and distracted, and scared.

"Strange times," we say to each other as we banter in our Zoom meetings. And these times are indeed "strange," but perhaps mostly because they have laid bare the truth of our humanness and frailty more urgently and obtrusively than in "normal" times.

In some ways, though, there is nothing strange about the landscape we're now having to navigate together. We've always been who we are now.

We've always been human and frail in our busyness, long before any of us knew what COVID-19 was. We've always wrestled with human emotions like anxiety and fear and sadness. We've always been challenged with juggling family commitments and personal needs with seemingly inflexible work schedules and demands. And we've always been more and felt more and needed more than perhaps our jobs have permitted us to be and feel and need.

The psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner has contributed much to our understanding of why we've always been this way, and not just in times of crisis. The grandfather of the field of ecological systems theory, Bronfenbrenner observed that our behaviors in our immediate social settings—social settings like our places of work—are always inextricably linked to who we most fully are in the other spheres of our personal and social lives.

Who we are as spouses, or parents, or friends, or community members, or religious believers, or whoever else we are—these pieces of ourselves always manage to sneak into the ways in which we show up to places like our work. That employee you're extending an extra measure of understanding to right now because they have to manage their kids' schooling? They needed that same understanding last year when they were coping with their parent's cancer, and they'll need it again in a few years when they're navigating a divorce or when a tornado rips through their local community (I see you, Nashville).

I wonder if companies making affordances to employees now will continue to do so in the future when those same employees are no less human and no less in need of humanity in their work.

Many businesses and organizations right now are only reactively accommodating temporary needs. They are patching together remote alternatives to meetings and ways of conducting business. They are granting tenuous leniency for work schedules and commitments, acknowledging that some employees are finding themselves suddenly working as homeschool teachers or emergency caretakers.

We can hope that the circumstances forcing us to be more reactively sympathetic will abate. And we can hope, even further, that these circumstances will give way to a more proactive "new normal" enabling us to preserve some of the best of what we're only beginning to discover about how we all want to continue to work together in the future.

Of course, we already know several tactics that work well for creating more "human" professional environments. We may be using some of them now only as stopgaps, but they hold so much more strategic potential for the road ahead.

  • Agile or Flexible Workplace Arrangements. Video meetings, working-from-home, flexible schedules, adaptive hours—these can be more than just COVID-19 strategies. They can become long-term policies ensuring that life circumstances (e.g., pregnancies, illnesses, transportation issues) or the unique characteristics of who you are as a person (e.g., religion, race, gender, disabilities, age) don't prevent you from fully participating in your organization or advancing your career.
  • Human-Centric Workplace Cultures. NYU Law Professor Kenji Yoshino and Deloitte University Director Christie Smith conducted a survey a few years ago of approximately 3,000 employees across twenty large US corporations. They asked about employees' comfort in being their fullest selves at work, and they found that 61 percent of employees surveyed reported feeling either overt or implicit pressure in their places of work to cover up important aspects of themselves as human people—their personal family commitments, religious or ethnic identities, age, mental health issues, or even physical disabilities.1 Healthier workplace cultures, in contrast, promote vulnerability and honesty about who we are and what we need. These workplaces support our complexities, rather than masking over them or even punishing them. These ways of working together are needed in times of normalcy just as much as in times of crisis.
  • Diversity in the Workplace. The pandemic is affecting minority and marginalized populations disproportionately, likely requiring immediate and more targeted organizational interventions (e.g., support for internet access, remote technology loans). As a long-term focus in the workplace, though, diversity is perhaps most effectively achieved when it's not thought of as simply a one-time program or action but, rather, as a general orientation of the organization toward its work and people. Through hiring practices, the ways meetings and conversations are ordered and leave space for different and disparate voices, and employee guidelines and policies deployed to structure workplace life, diversity works best as a value we express and as a focus we keep in the front of our minds. Without that value and focus, we cannot show up to work as the fullest and best versions of ourselves.

Whatever kind of "normal" we'll be returning to someday, it doesn't have to look like the "normal" we used to know. As my wife and I folded up our chairs to go back into the house after watching our boys ride their bikes, I said, "Let's still remember to do this." We'll have a lot to weather as a family in the months ahead. Our boys' education, our family's physical and emotional and financial well-being, the safety of our friends and loved ones—so much is still so uncertain, and likely will be for some time. But whenever we get to the other side of this, I hope our family is able to remember and preserve the beautiful things this pandemic has brought into sharper focus—namely, one another.

I have the same hope for our places of work: that we can continue, after the world returns to normal, to do those things that are occurring to us now only out of necessity. I hope we will treat ourselves and others around us in the workplace more humanly. And I hope we will choose to remember, systematically and through our policies and practices, that we were always more than the jobs we do—and that we always will be.

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  1. Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith, Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion, research report, (Westlake, TX: Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, December 2013).

Mark McCormack is Senior Director of Analytics and Research at EDUCAUSE.

© 2020 Mark McCormack. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.