Navigating the New Normal at Work

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Today, I’m interviewing Gwen Moran who writes and speaks about the intersection of work place issues and life. Gwen is a regular contributor to Fast Company and many other outlets where she’s been writing extensively about re-emergence from the pandemic and what that means for all of us. Gwen is also the creator of bloomanywhere.com, which helps people figure out how to thrive no matter their circumstances. I’m excited to talk to Gwen today about how to navigate the new normal with your coworkers and clients.

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You interview a ton of experts and real people about the realities of work. What are folks talking about or worried about at this particular time, when offices are starting to open back up and the realities that we had finally adjusted to during lockdown are starting to shift?

So there are quite a few things. I think that no one expects that we’re going to go back to the way that we did things in 2019 and early 2020. There is an expectation among most people that work is going to change, but the stressful part is that we don’t know exactly how. So when you go back and face your co-workers, what is that going to look like? What sorts of safety measures are employers taking to ensure that people come back and aren’t exposed to the virus or have other issues. How will we interact?

I’ve talked to a number of people who’ve admitted to me, and, I’ll admit myself, that a year and a half in isolation or mostly isolation with just a few people, makes us a little socially awkward. So how am I going to interact with people on a daily basis? And then just the day-to-day things like, I haven’t commuted for a year and a half. How am I going to navigate bus or train both from a physical standpoint, have the routes changed? Has the schedule changed? But also from a psychological standpoint–how am I going to face down that train with all of those people on it?

Or, you know, how am I going to spend an hour or two hours or more every day commuting when I’ve been able to use that time to be with my family? So, you know, this is a multi-layered, very complex issue and it’s something that we’re going to need to address in order to get people back in the office, either full or part-time.

During the pandemic, we got really real with our coworkers, because we could see into each other’s homes. And we could hear the dog barking or the kid whining or whatever. We could see the pile of laundry, you know, it was kind of vulnerable. It was kind of awkward. But it also helped dissolve this line between work and home and reminded us that we’re all real people.
How do we keep this increased humanity and transparency going? Or do we even want to?

Yeah, I think of it sort of like when you start a healthy eating program. The first week you’re doing great, you’re eating all those salads. And then you hit a stressful week at work. Then all of a sudden the fast food is calling or the chocolate bar that is still in your pantry is calling your name. And you kind of dive back into those old habits that are comfortable. We have an opportunity now to take forward some very important things that happened during the pandemic and changes to the way that we work and we interact. And we don’t want to lose that opportunity and fall into the same old habits.

Gwen Moran speaking on navigating the new normal at work on the How to be a Better Person podcastI think everyone has had a pet or a child kind of interject themselves into an important zoom call. And those moments are funny, right? I mean, just yesterday I was doing a zoom with someone and this was a very important call and my cat jumped up on the back of my chair because I had forgotten to shut my door. And you know, what had been a very intense moment suddenly became a moment of shared laughter because my cat is 14 and there’s no telling him what to do. And they happened to love cats.

So, you know, let’s take forward that humanity. During the pandemic, workplace leaders suddenly were forced to put humans at the center of their decision-making. So, you know, you have this workforce that was suddenly transitioned to home. You didn’t have control over what they did in their offices. So suddenly workplaces had to be truly supportive of people and the challenges that they were facing, the grief that they were feeling, the fear that they were feeling, and support them in ways that made them okay so that they could come to work.

Imagine if we made that a priority always. And what would be possible with our teams and our interpersonal relationships if we put the person first and shared our vulnerability and what we’re actually thinking so that we could get the support that we need. I mean, it sounds a little Pollyannish, but we have to remember that it actually happened over the past year and that’s how we operated. So how can we take human-centered practices and move them forward into whatever the new normal is?

I mean, amen. You know, that’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about since the pandemic. And I work for myself, so I have no boss to blame, but me. But we put work and productivity so front and center, and it really became clear that that focus on humanity was missing.
So this isn’t a question that I asked you to prepare for, but I’m just curious, like are there things we, the employees, or maybe the entrepreneurs or the business owners, can do so that we carry that with us? What do we keep our eye on? How do we do it? Because if we don’t try, I feel like we will slowly get back to chasing deadlines.

Yeah, exactly. So I think there are a few things first. I think there is an enormous amount of peer pressure right now on employers to keep some of those practices. To allow employees to have more flexibility in when they work and how they work. To be more outcomes focused and less processed focused, which I think is a good business practice anyway, and probably a good life practice. I think that we are coming out of an era where transparency was at its peak. Employers had to share what the game plan was, how they were operating, how they were going to address problems that employees were facing.

Let’s keep up the communication. Let’s not lose that. And let’s keep the transparency and keep voicing what needs are as employees and as employers. This dialogue is really valuable and we’ve seen productivity go up during the pandemic. That’s partially been because of when you’re not commuting, you put in a little more desk time. But at the same time, people have been able to make their life and their work fit together. And they’ve been blended. So if you needed to take a couple of hours to help your child with schoolwork during the course of the day, then that’s what you did. And then you came back to your work later. So we’ve seen satisfaction levels in a lot of ways go up.

And then I think we also need to trust what we showed ourselves over the past year and a half is that we have an enormous capability to solve problems and meet challenges. And that’s at the micro level from, you know, suddenly you’re working from home and you’re your own IT department. To the macro level, where we developed vaccines in an enormously compressed amount of time. So we need to trust our ability to problem solve and to make things right.

I think we should come out of the pandemic with an enhanced sense of confidence in what humans are capable of and distill that down into what we personally are capable of and how we can create change both in our lives and on a much bigger level.

Where we’re doing our work is in flux, we’ve been at home and we kind of acclimated to that. Now some offices are opening back up, some are going hybrid. How can we stay connected to our coworkers? I’ve heard that’s been one of the challenges, right? To keep this kind of team mentality or this sense of, I actually do have colleagues, even though I’m home alone. And so how do we keep that going as the landscape is continuing to shift?

I think we have to be more intentional about it when we’re not in the same workspace. But you know, I kind of laugh Kate, because I hear during the course of my day, when I’m interviewing people about how some are excited to go back to the workplace, because they miss the water cooler conversations. In a lot of places, that’s not going to be a thing anymore. The water coolers are gone, shared food is gone, gathering around anything is gone without social distancing. So, this is where I think that we’re going to have sort of a conflict between what our expectations are of going back to the workplace and what the reality is going to be.

But one thing that I think we all can agree on is that it’s going to be hybrid. So, you know, you are always going to have those remote workers. You are going to have some folks who do return to the office. And being intentional about keeping everyone engaged is going to be critically important.

I have a client that I participate in their all hands meeting on occasion. And the way that this used to work was I would call in and I would sit on a horrible connection to a speakerphone in the middle of the table. I couldn’t hear anyone. I couldn’t see anybody’s expressions. And I would just sort of wait until they shouted out my name, if they needed something from me. And then the call would end an hour later. Well, now we do zoom calls and we’re face-to-face. And my daughter has migrated into my office and they’ve all met her. And our connection is so much more human.

So I think we’re going to need to use the technology that we have intentionally to keep those connections. I talked to a guy who I think had a brilliant idea for keeping in touch with people. When he finds himself with some free time, he pulls out his phone, he picks a letter, and then he randomly dials one of his contacts. Like he’ll just pick the fourth person on the list and give them a call just to say hi, or shoot them a text just to keep in touch.

You know, not everyone likes to receive unexpected phone calls. But at the same time, if you think about that, just take a moment every once in awhile and go through your list of people. Go through your Facebook contacts and do more than just connect electronically. Schedule a time to have a virtual coffee, which seems trite, but it’s actually really fun. Or  schedule a time to have a quick phone chat and just keep that human connection, even when you’re remote.

That’s really great advice. I mean, I think that’s one of the benefits of having been without our network of people for a year and a half is we understand their value now, I think just sort of intuitively. So I love that tip to make it concrete.

And I would also just caution, give people a little space and a little grace during this time. Because for some people, reentry has been really hard. I’m an off the charts extrovert and I have always loved being around people. I am the original ‘the more the merrier’ person. And even now, when I’m going back out in the world, being around a lot of people for an extended period of time, it’s a lot. It’s exhausting.

So if you find that people are a little reluctant to make that plan for coffee, or they still want to be remote for a while, keep in mind that we don’t know what everyone has been through during this time. And it has been a traumatic time for many. So, make those connections, but also be a little flexible in how you’re keeping them.

Right. Don’t take it personally. Maybe if not everybody reacts like, oh, thank you for calling me. I’m so happy.

Exactly. Or isn’t necessarily excited about meeting up for sushi, even though the restrictions have dropped. Or has other reluctance. There’s something else there and it’s not you.

Right. Gwen, for folks who want to hear more from you, follow your incredible work, where can they find you?

Bloom Anywhere is my latest project, where I am channeling the years of research I’ve done in work life and personal development to help other people. Our motto there is, “Life is messy, thrive anyway.” And I don’t think that’s been more true than the past year. So certainly there. And also at my website, gwenmoran.com. And you can follow me on Twitter @GwenMoran.

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