Redefining Normal for the Post-Pandemic World

© 2021 Zoryna O’Donnell

Desire to “return to normal”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and shaken to the core not only global economies and businesses, but also our life as we knew it.

And yet, on average, 59% of people across the globe expect life to return to something like 'normal' within the next 12 months, according to a new World Economic Forum-Ipsos survey.

With the successful roll-out of the national vaccination programme in the UK, more and more of my coaching clients, including those in the position of leadership, are now talking about “going back to normal soon”. When I ask them what they mean by this, their answers are indicative of their yearning for the comfort of familiarity, stability and predictability – all included in their understanding of “normal” before the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is “normal”?

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, “normal” (adjective) is defined as ordinary or usual, the same as would be expected.

But when we think about it, the pre-pandemic life was hardly ordinary, usual or stable. After all, acronyms like VUCA and VUCA+ (short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) became trendy three decades before the emergence of the new virus. Yet there was still a degree of a perceived predictability as we were dealing with the “known unknowns” and were able to factor them into our decision making and planning on both, organisational and personal levels. Thus, even VUCA became normal for us.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. We have found ourselves in uncharted waters full of “unknown unknowns”.

How our brains are adapting to the loss of “normal”

Our brains are often compared to “prediction machines” – they are designed by the Mother-Nature to predict and make sense of the world around us and to keep us safe. Any significant change with an associated rapid increase in uncertainty and ambiguity is incredibly uncomfortable for our brains because this is seen as an error or a gap which must be dealt with immediately to help us feel safe and comfortable again. In other words, a significant and rapid change creates a threat response: fight, flight or freeze.  We can easily recognise this response in ourselves and people around us and we are searching for the ways to mitigate this response while the planet is still in the grip of the pandemic.

The last twelve months have created a gap, a distance between us and the pre-pandemic “normal” with all its tensions, challenges and stresses. We now see everything from a different perspective. We have come to appreciate more all the things that we used to take for granted before – the sense of belonging in our workplace, the joy of meetings with family and friends, the hugs and even simple handshakes… We have fond memories of all those things and many more, and cannot wait to experience them again. We use nostalgia (a sentimental longing and a wistful affection for times before the pandemic) to mitigate the psychological impact of the pandemic.

The healing power of nostalgia

During times of uncertainty and stress, nostalgia helps to keep our emotions grounded. When we recall happy times, it gives us hope that the difficulties we are experiencing now will soon become just another distant memory. In fact, there are a surprising number of benefits to indulging in nostalgia. It is an important psychological resource which gives a boost to positive psychological states such as positive mood, feelings of social connectedness, self-esteem, self-continuity and perceptions of meaning and the purpose in life.

But for all its benefits, too much nostalgia can lure us into retreating from the reality and actions needed to define and build our “new normal”.

The leadership challenge of defining the “new normal”

As Tom Frieden put it in his article, “It’s tempting to wonder when things will return to normal, but the fact is that they won’t — not the old normal anyway. But we can achieve a new kind of normalcy, even if this brave new world differs in fundamental ways.”

Leaders can start by focusing on the purpose and values of their organisations, reflecting on the experience of the past twelve months and re-aligning their operational models, organisational culture and common language if they want their organisations to thrive post-pandemic.

They have a unique opportunity to work with people at all levels of their organisations to rethink what they can take into the future from the pre-pandemic “normal” and the unexpected benefits and the lessons learned during the past twelve months. They will have to be brave in changing or leaving behind what is no longer right for this changed environment. It does not matter how comforting and familiar these elements of the “old normal” have been.

Leaders must act with agility and optimism and be brutally honest about the challenges ahead and the ways to overcome them. They must over-communicate with their staff to make sure people are receiving the information they need, when they need it. This is particularly important when working remotely. But they also need to leave space for others to speak up and share their experiences and insights.

Leaders can ask themselves and their teams these questions:

-       How can we reinvent the way we work to best utilise the new normal?

-       Where can we reform our operations in order to fit in the new reality?

-       How can we recover: physically, mentally, emotionally and economically?

-       What is on the horizon? What challenges and opportunities can we anticipate?

And, of course, leaders must rethink their own leadership style and approaches and consider adopting a trauma-informed approach to leadership and management in their organisations.

By working with their people to define the “new normal” for their organisations, leaders will create an environment where both their people and their organisations can thrive in the post-pandemic world.

This article was first published on on 20/04/2021.

Image credit: geralt via Pixabay