Restarting work – learning the new norm

Restarting work – learning the new norm

This article first appeared in Business Times on 22 May 2020

Restarting work – learning the new norm

by John Bittleston, Founder Mentor, Terrific Mentors International

Some of it will seem just like after a long break – shake off the dust, throw away the half-empty coffee cups, see if anyone has dealt with the tiresome issue you left behind. Much of it won’t be like that at all. Social distancing will still be advised, though how we are all to do that and work in an office together is beyond me. The biggest trial will be the absence of some colleagues you relied on to help you with the tasks you haven’t quite yet mastered. They will have gone forever, and their jobs will not be replaced.

What won’t have gone forever is Covid-19. Despite the good news of research work on a vaccine, it is clear that 18 months is the best we can hope for, 36 may be more realistic. So we are going back to work in a threatening pandemic with the World’s Finance Ministers urging us to speed up working and the World’s Doctors counselling slow open. And an endless stream of articles on the value of life. I expect you think, like me, that the life you have is pretty much the one you want to keep.

Covid will continue
The virus will continue and there will be new cases and new deaths every day. Truth is that all of us, including scientists and doctors, are learning – literally daily – how the virus reacts, mutates and progresses. Herd immunity is questionable. Social distancing is an easy government instruction but a difficult order to obey. But the economies of the world must start working again and the first people to know this are the poor who cannot afford even a day off. Orders and counter orders emerge hourly as we discover how to beat the beast.

The new norm will be nervous. We will keep asking ourselves ‘am I taking this virus back to the breadwinner, to the children, to the old?’ Someone won’t come to work one day. Panic may ensure. Others will stay away for a few days until they realise that colleagues are still going to work. ‘The brave ones’ they will be labelled. ‘The employed ones’ you will think, as you return to your desk. Distancing markers will litter the office, the canteen, the washrooms. “Wash your hands” notices will abound. Once in place, a company will think it has done its duty. Let the employees obey.

But there will be times when you must hand over papers or be near to someone for a signature. And we know that the virus can sit on documents, door handles, wooden and metal tops – sometimes for hours. Don’t open the physical mail for at least ninety minutes to minimise the risk. Take your own sanitiser and cloths to clean what you think has become contaminated. Wash your hands…

Leaders need to step up
Leaders will need to step up and tell employees the truth. They may be reluctant to do so but that is the new norm. Employees will only cooperate flexibly if their bosses show good faith in establishing what they know, what they are going to have to do to keep the firm afloat and how they are looking for new opportunities in the situation. Some opportunities will be in cost cutting and some in branching out into other but related areas of work. New revenue models are a priority for the thinkers in the organisation. Your competitive advantage can now be extended.

Work will have piled up even if you have been assiduous in doing all you can from home. It is surprising how many things need personal attention. Most important of all will be the cash balance. Not your job? Believe me it is everyone’s job now. Slow payer customers are going to be the menace for your company – and most others. Threatening them with bankruptcy if they don’t pay up soon will be no solution. I’m sure you will do some of this but if they are not receiving it they cannot dish it out.

Easing cashflow
Begging them won’t work either. If you are in a position to do so, spend all the time you need to, as soon as you get back, getting your loans from the bank, the government and your suppliers straightened out. This is No 1 priority. For the foreseeable future cash is going to be critical. Put in hand a financial projection spreadsheet – and change it every day. Every director of the business should be made to read this. They are responsible for the company’s financial position. They may also be the source of reasonable loans. Get them thinking about it.

Probably you will be allowed some days when you can work from home. Encourage this. Even if your home is not ideal at least you know it, and you will save travel time, possibly the most vulnerable time of all. But as you work from home remember that you are suddenly the boss of your own timetable. That requires discipline your own boss may have previously checked. Whatever you do, don’t imagine these are the same sort of days when you were home for lockdown. No, these are very definitely work days and your control over them must be as good as any time in the office.

Examine your supply chain
For those involved in buying for the business, the supply chain will be examined in minute detail. That will lead to disruption as some suppliers offer better terms in order to get your business. Watch the small print. Terms and conditions are getting more litigiously applied. There will be escape clauses at every paragraph. You will want your escape clauses, too. For big companies all this is unavoidable. For SMEs, stick with the suppliers you know and trust. Your T&C are already established with them, though they may need a tweak or two. Good suppliers are the best ones in a crisis, which is exactly where you are now. Remember to look after them. There will be another crisis along in a while.

Set up a survival team
Management has changed more in the last six months then the last ten years. Your reliable, intelligent and committed employees are gold. Hang onto them by making them part of the survival team, ready with whatever rescue plan is needed. Keep that team small in number, adaptable in performance. Don’t let people into that team who can’t see the big change that has happened. Participative management has moved up many rungs on the ladder of human resources. This is a time for talent renewal.

Back to work always engenders mixed feelings. Lockdown may have been boring but there are moments of being closer to your family. Lessons learnt from that are worth remembering. Your adaptability and flexibility in working from home will also be worth building on. You will probably be working much more that way in the future.

If you can, and if you have the discipline to master it, do so. It will be invaluable to you.