Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Work Culture

There’s never been a better time to design your ‘new normal’

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Published on September 17, 2020

Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

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You’ve seen them before: The Coronavirus Optimists. You might even be one yourself. They share articles about vaccines in development, point to countries that are already holding concerts and opening movie theaters, and chat cheerfully about their travel plans for next summer.

There’s a term for this: Anchoring bias, or focalism. It’s when your mind fixates on the first piece of info on a topic you receive—which, in a situation like this, almost certainly downplayed or outright underestimated the ongoing scale of Covid-19—and disregards any updated information that pops up along the way. 

This makes sense, as a mental defense mechanism; why wouldn’t you plan your life around the most comforting outcome? But it’s a vision of the future untethered from reality or the predictions of some experts, who say physical distancing could be a thing until 2022 at the earliest.

Face masks and video conferencing aren’t just a summer trend; they’re probably the shape of our collective lives for years to come. This is our “New Normal.” But when something is new, it’s also undefined. Take work, for example. 

While we’re all figuring out how to make things work on a micro and macro scale, we’re simultaneously being presented with a rare opportunity to define what works for us in the absence of workplace status quos pulling us back towards open-concept offices and city-centric job opportunities.

So it’s time to finally ask yourself: How can you turn work into something that works for you?

Power cycling the world

For as long as we have enjoyed the comfort of personal computers, humanity has been guided by a single piece of evergreen advice: Try turning it off and on again. The Covid-19 crisis, especially in its early months, effectively shut down huge sections of how our world works. From massive logistical concerns like food distribution to smaller comforts and conveniences like crowded bars and trips to the spa, some of those sectors are a long way from coming back as they were, while others are returning under new rules and regulations.

Appropriately enough, this is being called The Great Reset, itself a term that has been adopted by various analysts and authors in the 21st century. The current version has been spearheaded by members of the World Economic Forum, and their sprawling vision of what’s to come can be seen at the above link as well as in their recently published book of the same name.

Without turning this into an economics seminar, WEF’s vision of a Reset stems from an honest assessment of major societal flaws and shortcomings that have been laid bare during this crisis. The precarious financial reality that millions of people exist under won’t be forgotten anytime soon, to say nothing of America’s healthcare system. Systemic injustice, environmental caretaking; we’ve all been spending more time at home, looking into screens, unable to deny the reality of what we’re being shown. 

“The pandemic represents a rare but narrow opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world,” says Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, and one of the authors of The Great Reset. Schwab and his team have done some reflecting themselves and landed on three main components behind their Great Reset agenda.

The first is a concentrated effort to convince world governments to steer their economic markets towards “fairer outcomes” through a combination of tax rates and contextual policies to ensure financial stability. 

The second is to shift long-term investment strategies towards shared goals, like developing green technology or filling in holes in the social safety net.

The third, and arguably most ambitious, component is uniting workers and corporate entities to share their labor and resources to tackle issues relevant to the public good, from developing vaccines in the short term and solving bigger-picture societal issues in the long run.

If this seems overwhelming to you, that’s totally reasonable. While WEF’s vision is admirable (if not inspirational), a cursory look at their proposed actions will reveal whole schools of thought who believe they’re going too far, and others still insisting they don’t go far enough.

Great Resets and New Normals sound excellent on paper, but they’ll still all be works-in-progress, like the world around us. And it’s becoming clear that in this vacuum of clear structural direction, nobody has more power over what your near future looks like than you.

So, what does it look like to rewrite the script for your work-life plan on the fly? It can look like almost anything. Fortunately, there are more examples every day.

A more personal reset

Let’s address the elephant in the room—or rather, in the home office. There’s a very good chance that you may never go back to working from a dedicated office again, or at least not with the same frequency or purpose as before. If your work was already primarily remote, your biggest growing pains might be interacting with clients who aren’t as seasoned with video conferences or running pitch meetings with a screaming baby in the background as you are.

While there will inevitably be notable holdouts who insist that their corporate culture is defined by in-person interaction, they’ll probably be in the minority for any job that can feasibly be accomplished through distance working. This Gallup poll found that (as of May 2020) about half of US workers currently at home said they would prefer to work from a distance after the pandemic is over. Additionally, 6 out of 10 employers said they would allow their employees to work remotely “more often” in the future. 

That’s to say nothing of the proven gains in both productivity and profits—the former because of reduced in-person distractions, and the latter due to costs saved in office space and a shift to ecommerce—for millions of mall-sick shoppers.

From this point, it’s a domino effect, with no area of our previous view of jobs (and by extension life) left untouched. If half of all workers don’t need to be within commuting distance of their job, our entire city-centric system of real estate (where population density is greater in cities as people relocate close to their workplaces) is thrown into question. 

If you’re a Country Mouse at heart who rents a nearby apartment so you can take public transit to your City Mouse job, this could be a foundational change to your life. Everyone comes to (or leaves) a major population center for their own reasons; employment is a big one. Permanent distributed work situations would mean that you could live anywhere with a strong enough internet connection.

It’s far too early to say if this outcome, where droves of people move exactly where they want without jeopardizing their careers, will come to pass. Financial anxiety is understandably rampant—54% of parents expect to lose money once the school year starts—leaving few of us in the position to plan for a major move or real estate purchase, much less save for one. 

But it’s not outside the realm of possibility; far from it. Other parts of the world may be showing us the shape of things to come, as well. Real estate agents in Toronto, Canada’s biggest city with a population of over 6 million people, are reporting an upward buying surge of 40% in rural areas up to an hour’s drive away from the city proper. A lot of people are doing the math, looking at their lives, and making a change they would literally have never considered a year ago.

The potential knock-on effects are, once again, staggering to try and anticipate. Will small towns and cities become creatively and economically revitalized by an influx of literal new blood and ideas into their communities? Will big cities maintain their cultural and social sway when many of their most appealing elements remain compromised or closed until the pandemic is truly over? Will this moment usher in the destruction of flawed economic systems, or simply help them complete their consolidation

As always, the answer is a big ol’ shrug emoji. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But if you look carefully, there is one consistent theme: Pragmatism. As the things that don’t matter are understandably set aside, what remains is crucial—the framework of what keeps our individual lives and society going forward, even now. And if you have a framework, you can build from there.

Designing a life that makes sense

We are often thrown into traditions that are too well established to be effectively questioned, let alone changed. A great example is the 40-hour workweek. Pre-Covid, it was a seldom questioned rule of North American work life that you would show up in an office, from 9(ish) to 5(ish) every week, forever. Back then (in the good old days of January 2020), over a third of American business Executives surveyed by PWC said that their workplaces had few-to-none employees who worked even a single day away from the office per week. It’s a tradition we’ve all lived in one way or another.

That 40-hour framework was codified by Henry Ford in 1926, mostly because he saw that as the amount of time his assembly line workers could stay consistently productive before their output quality would drop. (Not-fun fact: They were previously working 100 hours a week.) It was quickly adopted by other industries and has existed in that form until pretty much now. After all, it worked and made sense, right?

Not really! Between 1948 and 2018, U.S. worker productivity rose by 252.90%, while their workplace structure—40 hours a week, in an office, forever—stayed exactly the same. (The disparity between pay and productivity in that same period is an even bigger can of worms.) But it was a tradition that was upheld in full until the events of 2020 urged so many of us to take an essentialist approach to making our teams and workplaces function.

We’re losing the myth of the office-as-a-necessity right now. Many workplaces, and even some entire countries, have shifted to four-day/35-hour weeks, or even less. According to this Harris Poll, a whopping 80% of American employees are now in favor of a standardized 4-day workweek in their industries. The framework of our modern work lives—getting things done—is being revealed as the only real priority for millions of people, and the path to that goal can be as flexible and unique as each of us.

So, stripped of tradition and artifice, with an ongoing focus on what we actually prioritize when times get tough, it’s easier to see how people are coming to newer, smarter conclusions about what they want their lives to look like. It all comes down to the framework.

Distance work is here to stay, and the longer we become accustomed to it, the harder (not to mention expensive and unpopular) it will become for employers to enforce the old system that drove people to choose between where they want to live and who they want to work for. Allow yourself to imagine those parts of your life as two separate goals, and see where your thoughts land.

Entire career paths and workforces are going to be unstable, which means that freelance, contract, and non-regular jobs (and the skills to exist in those environments) are only going to become more widespread. By choice or by circumstance, millions of us will be rethinking our careers during this pandemic. So it couldn’t hurt to really think about what put you on your current career path and what it would take for you to change direction.

Finally, we can’t deny that the status quo itself is up in the air. That phrase, status quo, is Latin for “the existing situation.” Our existing situation is that everything is changing all the time forever, which also means that you have the power to define it for yourself going forward. 

People working a 4-day week repeatedly say that they’re happier. That’s not because they have less work—logically, it’s the same workload distributed differently—but because they have more time and mental space for family, friends, hobbies, and creativity. The Covid-19 crisis is the furthest thing from a creative retreat, but it has brought that lack of space and time in our prior lives into stark relief for many. 

In essence, these are the questions and topics that cover so much of what our lives look like: where we live, our occupation, and what we do outside of work. This pandemic has revealed many things about what works in our world and what doesn’t. It’s given us knowledge and tools that we can apply to building our own, better status quos. And it’s made the need for kindness and empathy, both to ourselves and to others, abundantly clear. 

Some sort of “normal” is on the horizon. But it doesn’t have to look anything like what it did before. As you navigate the daily challenges of this slice of history, you can be consciously designing that normal in your brain before bringing it to life when it works for you.

That’s the key: So many of us were finding a way to make our lives work before this, doing what we could around structures so much bigger than we were. Now, it’s time for a much brighter question: How can you build a life that works for you? Your new normal awaits.