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The Next Normal

by Doug Boebinger, MS, PMP®, PMTA-CTP

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January 20, 2021

Over the past 13 months (feels like 13 years), I have heard people talk about the “new normal.”  That phrase doesn’t sit well with me. It makes it sound like we will go back to normal after this is all done.

But we never go back to the old normal.

We need to look at this as being the “next normal.”

After a Black Swan-like event (a topic for another newsletter), the world changes. The world figures out the next normal and how to operate in it. And the world moves on. We saw this after the 9/11 attacks. We saw this after the financial collapse of 2008. And we will see it in this post-2020 world.

In a Harvard Business Review article titled “How to Prepare Your Virtual Teams for the Long Haul” by Mark Mortensen and Constance Noonan Hadley, they discuss what is needed to move into this next normal.

The authors cite that 76% of executives report having difficulty feeling connected to their teammates, with cited reasons ranging from perceived differences in personality to the strain of working across time zones. The executives reported a lack of clarity about their team’s role in the leadership agenda, fading interpersonal connections due to remote work, low motivation, and overwhelming workloads.

The article recommends a three part model to help function in the next normal:

Part 1: Triage
Within each team ask these questions:

  • Task: Are the team’s objectives or work no longer relevant or at odds with reality?
  • People: Is the team’s interpersonal foundation cracked?

Across teams ask:

  • Task: Are teams being staffed in an idiosyncratic or uncoordinated manner?
  • People: Is being on multiple teams creating untenable difficulties for some individuals?

Part 2: Stabilization

  • Immediately attend to any employee facing severe emotional or physical distress as the first priority.
  • Work to address the issues through targeted interventions.
  • Assess whether the team’s work needs to be shifted to create value in the current environment.
  • If the team proves to be dysfunctional, consider putting the team on hold or disbanding it. You may need to form new teams instead.
  • Teams and especially team leaders must create a psychologically safe environments in which members can raise questions, voice concerns, and offer new ideas.
  • Consider how to make team staffing and allocation rules clearer and more transparent.
  • Set common norms and expectations around things like the communication tools people use, how meetings are run, or how decisions are made.

Part 3: Long-Term Care

The authors note that many companies aren’t yet in the long-term care mode, but they urge leaders to start thinking about laying the foundations now, as this is your chance to make sure bad habits aren’t formed and established. All issues are easier to solve the earlier you catch them. Doing so increases the chance you identify small symptoms early, allowing you to intervene and ensure they don’t become big issues later.

In Conclusion

People have said we are all in the same boat in these times. But we really aren’t. We are all in the same storm. Understanding that people are in different boats — some are in yachts, some in speedboats, some in rowboats and some are desperately holding on to a piece of driftwood — will help you empathize with your team members.

It’s the Next Normal. We need to learn to make it work for everyone’s success.

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