The new normal is neither new nor normal

In 1918, in an article published in the Bulletin of the National Electric Light Association, Henry Alexander Wise Wood, inventor and member of the Naval Advisory Board of the United States Navy, wrote the following:

“To consider the problems before us we must divide our epoch into three periods, that of war, that of transition, that of the new normal, which undoubtedly will supersede the old. The questions before us, therefore, are, broadly, two: How shall we pass from war to the new normal with the least jar, in the shortest time? In that respect should the new normal be shaped to differ from the old?”

It is the first use of the term New Normal I have found records. In many crises since then, journalists, politicians, and analysts have used this term to refer to an unusual situation they hope will turn into a new standard once the crisis is over. COVID-19 crisis has been no exception.

Amid the pandemic first wave in the spring of 2020, there were already discussions about what the post-COVID new normal may look like. But there was not much agreement on that matter. Some said the pandemic could lead us to an unequal world, to the isolationism of countries, and greater individualism, while the most optimistic envisioned a future in which we would become more sensitive to health issues, the living conditions of the elderly, and environmental change. We even thought that the normalization of teleworking could solve the problem of depopulation in rural areas.

However, a year and a half later, I increasingly have the feeling that the post-COVID new normal is going to end up being, to a large extent, a continuation of trends that were already here before the pandemic broke out.

Apart from the traffic jams we see every morning in the big cities, we have data that points in that direction. In a survey we produced in Future for Work Institute in April about new ways of working at Spanish companies, we found that the aspects companies expect to change the most in the current decade are mostly the same have changed the most in the last decade. In particular, companies pointed to the number of people working remotely, automation, project work, and the importance of data quality as the matters that have expanded the most in the last ten years and the items that will continue to grow the most in the next decade.

Regarding remote work, the figures from the National Institute of Statistics of Spain are also good food for thought. If we follow the evolution of the percentage of the Spanish employed population that worked from home between 2016 and 2019, and we project that line into the future, and, in parallel, we draw the downward trajectory working from home is taking since it peaked in the second quarter of 2020, we will discover that in 2022 we may end up meeting the trend towards more remote work right where we left it before the pandemic, almost as if nothing had happened here.

The results of another survey we carried out in July, this time on the people management priorities of Spanish companies, are also revealing. In this survey, we compared the priorities of 105 companies for 2021 and 2022. One remarkable difference between the two periods is that the health and well-being of workers will stop being a strategic priority for a significant number of companies in 2022, while other topics, such as talent and career management, leadership, and culture and values, will remain at the top of the people management agenda of many companies.

But still, there are issues in which we are not going back to the point where these trends were interrupted. On some topics, we might even go backward. For example, an analysis we made of the behaviors of managers and executives revealed that the most common behaviors among leaders (clarifying roles, monitoring operations, planning, and solving problems) deviate from the behaviors companies anticipate will demand the most from their leaders in the long term (fostering innovation, imagining change, empowering). This fact fits with comments we have received from executives about a regression in the leadership style of their middle managers during the COVID crisis. Although, fortunately, it also fits with leadership development being high on the people management priorities of many companies for 2021 and 2022.

In short, this supposed new normal in which we are entering (or which we are already living) is not new, but it responds to a series of underlying trends that have been dragging us for some years now. Yet, the experience of the pandemic should help us finally become aware that we are facing a very complex world. The crisis opens opportunities for us, accelerates some trends, but we continue to navigate through a Mare Tenebrarum in which there are dragons. And this is not new.

We live in a paradoxical world. On the one hand, we live immersed in an avalanche of information, where it is difficult for us to separate the signal from the noise, but, on the other hand, we face many situations where we do not even know what we do not know. Although, again, this is not a new scenario.

We are afraid of the possibility of suffering health problems, climate change, cyberattacks, losing our freedoms as citizens, and losing our jobs.

We live in a context where the pandemic, limitations to mobility and social relations, and the economic crisis have affected the mental health of thousands of people.

As Nassim Taleb said, we live in an era of ‘black swans’, i.e., extreme unexpected events we humans tend to rationalize as if we could have foreseen them. Yet, many of these black swans are not swans, but ‘black elephants’ in the sense investor Adam Sweidan gave this term in 2014 when he used it to qualify certain environmental risks that some people try to make us look like ‘black swans’ when in fact they are ‘Elephants in the room’.

We live in a world that generates anxiety. Sometimes it is because we don’t see a way out of the situations we face. Although other times it is due to the opposite reason. We feel anxiety because we have way too many options to choose from, and it is difficult for us to decide which one is the best, or we are afraid of forgetting an alternative. And it can also be due to the frustration we sometimes feel when, by choosing one among many options, we give up the rest.

We live in a very uncertain environment that often leads to imitation. It leads us to end up taking as a model (or directly copying) what other organizations we perceive as successful are already doing, without thinking that no two organizations are the same and that, therefore, what works for one organization does not have to work for ours.

We also live in an incomprehensible non-linear environment we tend to simplify by building models for which we then look for optimal solutions, not realizing that when we seek optimal solutions for a simplified version of the world, we are cheating ourselves.

It is what happens many times we make decisions based on averages. We decide as if the solution that meets the needs of the mean also meets the needs of a large proportion (or the most critical) of the elements of the set on which we want to act. The problem is that those averages can hide abnormal distributions or unlikely high-impact events, such as a volcanic eruption or a pandemic.

Thus, the issue is not just that the post-COVID new normal is not new. The point is that the post-COVID new normal is neither new nor normal. We face a non-normal scenario with which we need to learn to relate differently, starting with paying more and better attention to what happens around us. It is complicated in a world full of noise, no doubt. But we cannot use this as an excuse. We must understand once and for all that, in the non-normal context in which we have lived for more than a decade, the devil is in the details, hence paying more attention to small details is a matter of survival. The COVID crisis at least should help us to gain awareness of that.

An article by
Santi Garcia