Nowadays, it is almost impossible to read an article about life after the epidemic without some self-appointed pundit using the phrase “new normal”. By itself, this phrase is value neutral. As an illustration, I remember the day my young family moved from a basic city apartment to our new “castle”, a three-bedroom house with a pool. My wife and daughter could not believe that this would be ours. In this situation, I could have proudly declared, “Get used to it; this is our new normal.”
Resigning to the New Normal?
The flip side of this coin showed itself when a friend of mine, who was a couple of years short of retirement, lost his management job and could not find something equivalent. One day, he told me that he would drive Uber until he could switch to his pension. “I guess this is my new normal,” he said in a resigned voice.
As it is used in this day and age of COVID-19, the “new normal” is rarely uttered in celebration of the good things to come. Rather, it indicates capitulation before the inevitable, waving the white flag in surrender. This is so contrary to the spirit with which this nation was founded and has thrived over the last 244 years. And in keeping with this spirit, I do not own a white flag, and I refuse to surrender.
Both Defense and Offense Are Necessary
It seems like the prescriptions for the “new normal” are being issued by an elite crowd: the wealthy, the highly educated, the politicians, and the professionals, all of whom are already firmly entrenched in a life style that contains many remnants of their comfortable “old normal”. Of course, there will always the misguided lackeys who mindlessly repeat the new mantra, hoping to receive a ticket for the magic carpet ride that is headed for that special place where the “new normal” does not exist. The rest of us will have to put up with the lowered expectations that come with a stagnant economy and a significantly reduced promise of upward mobility.
Not too long ago, a great number of gurus and politicians declared “secular stagnation”, characterized by low economic growth and rather high unemployment, as a new reality that we just have to accept. In the aftermath of the pandemic, this kind of defensive thinking is already making a comeback. And so we are declaring defeat before the game has started. Playing and watching team sports taught me one thing: if you focus on defense, you will lose!
Problems with the Paradigm Shift to Working From Home
In my 35-years as a knowledge worker, I have seen many perspectives that help address one of the center pieces of the new normal, working from home. At the moment, there seems to be an overwhelming majority eager to embrace this paradigm shift. But declaring a temporary necessity to be a lasting virtue is similar to whistling in the dark. Both may make you feel better, but they are not a solution to the underlying problem.
Flaws in the work from home concept.
- Homes are for living. A home is called a home because it is a home, not an office. Even people who live in sizable, single-family homes can have a hard time configuring a private, quiet space that allows thought and creativity without constant disruption and distractions. I have been working from home for the last three years, and there are days during which I get very little done because of the demands of a family that has gotten used to my presence. But what about the denizens of cramped city apartments, possibly a family of four with both parents working?
- Many corporations with a narrow focus on the short-term bottom line will readily embrace this new approach because of significantly reduced real estate expenses. Of course, a massive flight from corporate offices will create big trouble for the commercial real estate industry valued at approximately $15 trillion. The ripple effect through the entire economy has yet to be estimated.
- Managers and executives claim an increase in productivity due to their staff working from home. This is an untenable statement by definition. Productivity is not a concept applicable to creative work. Was Einstein more productive than Newton? Even if you replace “productivity” with “we are getting more done”, there are a number of problems. How do you know that the “more” is also “good” and “useful”? How do you know the “more” is not the result of much longer work hours that will eventually result in burnout? The claims of increased productivity are highly subjective and cannot be proven with fact-based arguments. And thus, we are whistling in the dark again.
- One of the almost unanimously hailed benefits of working from home is the demise of the commute. Is the new “commute” – bed to bathroom to kitchen to desk – unequivocally better than the old one-hour trip to the office? Of course, the commute is the source of much frustration, but it is also a buffer between home and office and a time for much needed privacy. Most of my commutes, whether by public transportation or by car, were one hour long or longer. For me, this was precious private time to relax and reflect, blast my favorite music without disturbing anybody, and learn by reading or listening to audio books. All of that is lost when you roll out of bed, have a cup of coffee, and sit down in front of your laptop to commence work.
- One universally shared source of frustration that is associated with working from home is the inadequate technology in use for virtual meetings and conferences. The days when we will have the ability to project three dimensional avatars into our cognitive space seem to still be decades away.
- But even with the most advanced technology imaginable, there is one obstacle which simply cannot be overcome, and that obstacle is us, the human beings. First of all, most people need a defined structure to function. The vagueness and ambivalence that comes with a lack of structure is a source of psychological disturbance for many. Add to this the techno-sterility of the virtual meeting, the result is a fertile breeding ground for one of the most destructive forces for the human soul: alienation.
- Lastly, the worldwide rebellion against the lockdown confirms what we already know. One of the basic needs of people is to be with other people. How do you get a sense for the atmosphere in a meeting when you are not physically present in the same space? What about the friendships that form in the workplace? All of that interaction creates bonds that are extremely valuable when solving the inevitable conflict inherent in teamwork. If the strife and anger we find in today’s social media is a sign of the future work climate, people will yearn for the good old days of the daily commute.
I am with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who tweeted the following: “What does burnout look like? What does mental health look like? What does that connectivity and the community building look like? One of the things I feel is, hey, maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?”
Flexible work hours and occasional work from home? Absolutely! Permanently working from home? For many of us, dehumanizing!