Managing the new normal: Remote and office life in the age of COVID (part 1)

Catherine Kohnen

21 September 2020

Redéfinir la vie au travail après l'impact du Covid

Managing the new normal: Remote and office life in the age of COVID (part 1)

Catherine Kohnen

Redéfinir la vie au travail après l'impact du Covid

When it comes to remote work, the lockdown pushed many companies from one extreme to another. Most were used to, at best, one or two days of homeworking per week. And overnight they had to switch to full remote whether they wanted to or not.

The situation continues. Fearing a second wave, most of them continued a near-complete telework until the start of the school year. And they’re not really stopping today.

So when we talk about “back to normal”, we wonder what it’s going to look like! At the moment, we are helping our customers answer this question and we have decided to share with you our complete method to set the framework for this “new normal”.

This article is written in three parts:

  • Defining your “new normal” strategy
  • Implementing the new normal
  • The new normal: troubleshooting

As this is a current topic, we will not hesitate to continuously improve these articles.

Are you a CEO, an HR manager or a transformation manager? Follow the guide!

The three typical ways to deal with remote since Covid (and our alternative)

When we think of the remote question, we naturally turn to three options:

The return to “normal” without adaptation

We want a return to pre-lockdown, without adaptations. Employees are scheduled to return to work as if nothing had happened. Because hey, we’d happily put it all behind us. It’s quite natural.

While this solution has the merit of clarity,it is not without drawbacks:

  • We are not yet at the end of Covid 19 and measures of social distancing. It is difficult to predict the possibility of a safe return to the office “as before.” We must also take into account back-pedalings like those we experienced this summer.
  • Few employees will be willing to return to such a rigid framework. Indeed, most of them like the new freedom of home work. We should therefore expect a lot of discontent, or even departures

In short, this approach is like crossing your fingers and hoping that everything goes for the best.

The full-remote

Since the beginning of the lockdown, some companies have announced on all social networks their intention to switch to “full-remote”: they will abandon their offices and move to full remote work. Bam.

These are mostly start-ups that are mostly already accustomed to the flexibility of home working. So, is this a trendy decision motivated by cost cutting, or a sincere search for innovative working methods? Time will tell.

The risk of this option is to see full remote as a panacea,which is far from the case, especially when it has been implemented in a hurry. After some early days of increased productivity thanks to commute time avoided, we now see that forced remote has had a negative impact on the productivity of many businesses. Building an effective full remote model will therefore require good thinking that cannot be carried out in a hurry.

In short, it is quite possible that the enthusiasm for full remote expressed at the beginning of lockdown quickly runs out. But curiously, there will be far fewer Linkedin statuses to talk about it…

The undecided in-between

The uncertainty of the moment drives many companies to mitigationsolutions: employees are encouraged to come back and promise to increase home-working opportunities while hoping to keep the office at the centre of professional life.

You don’t make a firm decision and you live with the changes on a day-to-day basis. Fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly. With this option, we let external circumstances decide the future of our company. We accept rather than act.

A considerable number of companies find themselves in this timid no man’s land. Simply because it offers a certain comfort: that of not making any decisions, therefore taking no risk. Well, in theory…

All these approaches have the same flaws:

Although different, these approaches have the same design flaws.

  • No clear goals

Without a clear objective, we only make hasty decisions or half-decisions. And this principle applies all the more to crisis situations that require rapid adaptation. We do something. Why, we don’t know.

  • No criteria for success

Without a clear goal, we can’t measure. And we rely on our intuition and the wet finger technique to estimate the result without knowing if it really is positive. It’s more or less okay, isn’t it?

  • No risk management

The more a situation is new, the more risky it is. And COVID has pushed companies to new extremes. Failure to identify these risks and accept them without flinching is entrepreneurial suicide. Just because we’ve just had a monstrous “oh my god” moment (a pandemic for those who weren’t paying attention) doesn’t mean there won’t be any more…

The alternative: a real strategy

As you might expect, we’re not the type to run around like headless chickens. What we suggest is to see this “new normal” as a real strategic project. In the remainder of this article we will explain how to lay the groundwork for your strategy. The implementation of this strategy and its follow-up will be discussed in two other detailed articles.

How to do it right

Every strategic project starts from a vision. We’ll explain how to define your vision of the new normal. Then we will cover the main risks to be taken into account

Preparing the field: what vision do you have of life in the office in your company

Even if the situation we are experiencing fluctuates, the best way to manage it is to define a true vision of your life in the office. It’s time to dare to dream and be ambitious. The change we are experiencing is driven by circumstances. If you don’t allow yourself to get the best out of it, you’re automatically locking yourself in a mediocre in-between.

Set your goals

The first step is to set clear goals and then determine your priorities

  • Start with who you are

Start from your company’s DNA. Your project must be consistent with your company’s identity, namely its mission and values. And every decision you make will have to be consistent with these two elements.

An example:If your company values things like “fun” or “happiness,” you’ll need to find a way to ensure that your employees find these elements even if time spent together decreases. Maintaining user friendliness in the office should be a priority. A value “we put fun in everything we do” looks bad when everyone falls asleep in the office or in a Zoom …

  • Set your priorities

This is the key to your project’s success. There is no right or wrong priority per se because, as has been said, it all depends on the DNA of your company. You can focus on productivity, profitability, team spirit, improved communication, there is no hard and fast rule.

But you have to stick to a limited number. Beyond three priorities, you lose the sense of what matters. And even with 3 priorities, there will always be one or two that will pass before the third. It’s up to you to be honest with yourself, and honest about the possibilities of your business…

  • In practical terms, what does it look like, a first vision of a new normal project?

Something as simple as this:

“My priorities are:

  1. improve team efficiency
  2. ensure excellent communication within the organization.

My ideal vision of a return to normality would be: A flexible way of working, 50% in the office and 50% in homework. Home working would be preferred for background tasks, the office for coordination and brainstorming. Fairness is at the heart of my company’s values, so it is important that every employee has access to the same opportunities in terms of homeworking.”

Once we have our vision in mind, it is time to confront it with reality, and therefore with the risks that will arise.

Thinking about the risks
  • Uncertainty

The life of a business is marred by uncertainty. But we can say that COVID has been particularly, erm, irritating. Because until we have a vaccine, no one will be immune to a lockdown or increased security measures. This uncertainty has an impact on your productivity as well as on the minds of your employees.

How to manage?

You anticipate and decide accordingly. Even if you set up distant deadlines. Many companies in the tech world have made a radical choice: no mandatory return to the office until spring 2021. It seemed extreme in May. Much less now. Because this decision has a double advantage:it reassures employees by offering them certainty while buying time to plan tomorrow.

The biggest mistake in the face of uncertainty is to wait and not decide anything.

  • Fear of returning to work and stress

When you look at most company surveys, many workers are afraid of COVID. And even if the office complies with the security measures, they fear crowded public transport …

Not to mention that if the forced telework could be experienced as a trauma, the return to the office can be experienced in an equally traumatic way. Because the lockdown and the crisis have a definite psychological impact that should not be overlooked.

How to manage?

It is vital to think about reassuring and managing trauma.

Reassuring by providing real security at the office is paramount (but at this point, you(ve hopefully done so). But that’s not enough. The human aspect is crucial. In each team, there are members who are more impacted than others, either because they are more at risk or because they are more fearful. It is important to listen to them and not to force them.

Preventing burnout and stress at work will also have to take a prominent place in your future HR projects.

  • Disinterest in the office

Apart from fear, many employees simply avoid the office because it no longer interests them. And it’s true that working 1.5m away from your colleagues while spraying yourself with hydro-alcoholic gel every time you go to the coffee machine isn’t really a dreamy situation. Especially when you can spare yourself the burden of public transport in the comfort of your home …

How to manage:

You can try to force people but objectively, that tends to go pretty badly. Especially for high value-added employees. The best option is therefore to create desire. The main attraction of the office is sociability and creativity. The office is a space that promotes human interactions. Companies where employees return of their own accord are often those with a strong and close-knit culture.

The office is also a great place to create and think as a team (Don’t talk to me about brainstorming online. There are some very good tools but the result remains disappointing compared to face-to-face interaction, even if they try to sell you the opposite).

Therefore, there must be opportunities to come back,which will require a redevelopment of the space. Some companies have made a bet to renovate their workspaces by creating more collaborative and spaces less focused around “workstations” to generate interest. If you have the budget, this can become an interesting opportunity to generate a new desire to be in the office.

Otherwise, you will have to be creative, or decide to wait until the security measures are finished…

  • Organization and communication problems

That is the major downside of the current situation. The one that employees talk about in all the polls. No more quick syncs at the coffee break, projects are harder to follow, an overdose of conference calls no more useful (but sometimes more numerous) than the meetings they replace … We don’t understand each other anymore and we waste time. We’d almost regret the traffic jams.

As we said before, you don’t just improvise full remote. However, we were all forced to do so overnight… Although we adjusted as months went by, you have to admit that we’re still not as efficient as we’d want to be. Many companies (even among big tech leaders, see the radical position of Reed Hastings of Netflix)have also admitted a substantial loss of productivity due to remote. Yes, we’ve said it before, but it’s an important point.

How to manage?

By seeking inspiration from the pioneers,those who did not wait for COVID to start working remotely. The good news is that most of them make their best practices available.

So don’t fool yourself and think that sending some documentation to your teams will be enough. If you want these best practices to be useful, you’ll need to go through customization, training, process improvement and change management. It all takes time and comes at a cost. But do nothing, it has a cost too (but this one, we always discover later).


Because we’re nice and we want to keep you from scouring Google.

Here’s our little best of resources on these issues.

(It will be updated if we find better)

That’s it for today.

Hopefully, you now have a first vision of your strategy and an idea of the risks to manage. In our next article, we’ll help you put it all together

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