Going backwards before we can go forwards.

Following a catch up with one of my clients last week, he was telling me that he “never felt so energised” and was looking forward to re-opening the final parts of his business and seeing his teams back working, he then told me he was frustrated by the phrase “new normal” and preferred the term of “existing normal”, at first it seemed refreshing that in the midst of such uncertainty that he remained resolute that things would return to what they were. For a moment I was hopeful!

I set up my consultancy business back in 2008 in the midst of a recession, so feel like I have some understanding of what a recession looks and feels like, but where we are now? From a people perspective; I’m not sure whether it will ever be the same, and are we really ready for what is about to come?

A new level of “distance”
First came working from home which created a physical distance literally overnight, no warning, no prep time. This was then compounded further by Furlough, which created a further level of distance between teams and individuals, with some employees continuing to work at the office, whilst their colleagues are at home, or unable to work even if they wanted to.

Oddly, then came the distance created through technology; as we continue to engage through whatever online portal, it still feels like we’re further away from normal human contact, when the Zoom call ends, it ends, you’re cut off, no leaving the meeting with idle chit chat or further discussion in hallways, just one click and you’re gone.

Finally, there’s the ongoing threat of another spike in cases, and the potential that we may have to lock down again, for some maybe just around the time that they are beginning the human, face to face contact back in the work place. The uncertainty of having to experience all of this again and this time knowing what its going to be like, is going to stay with all of us, the virus may fade but the memory and experience won’t.

The honeymoon period is over.
According to ONS statistics 9.1 million employees have been furloughed, with a further contingent working from home for over 12 weeks, at first there was the very British war mentality of “we’re all in this together”  people pulled together to make it work and started the journey of on line exercises and home schooling. There were those that promised they would learn a new language or skill, now frustrated that they didn’t fulfil their objective; we had a plan that our children would be heading back to school, that then changed, what we are now experiencing is a sense of treading in treacle, almost a regression and frustration.

As human beings we crave contact and a sense of belonging to our teams and tribes, people are wanting to come back, almost rushing through the newly opened doors in order to interact in a human and grown up way, in an attempt to get some contact and structure back into their lives. I’d like to predict that we’d see an increase in employee engagement and perhaps a sense of patience with each other, but how long will this honeymoon period really last?

Them & Us
And alongside the above, this will be topped off with a bubbling pot of “them and us” syndrome, as those on furlough start to return to workplaces, and potentially struggle to get back up to speed, (it’s like maternity leave all over again !) we need to be mindful that this could cause some conflict with those that have continued with some sense of normality.

When things start to get hard over the next couple of months which they will, through reduced costs, threat of job losses and once the new normal starts to take shape, what then? When the feeling of newness subsides, I sense we’ll be left with a feeling of grief,

the time at home, when the world switched off for just a few weeks when we were working (or not) it wasn’t really that bad was it?
– not sure this work thing is going to be what it was cracked up to be and maybe now I do want a better work, life balance?
– and as with any true somatic experience it will always leave people asking, “what is this all about anyway”

Can anything really be normal after this?

On reflection, my conclusion to what’s different is simply raw human emotion, and if we are to get through this next phase, we need to acknowledge, seek to understand and empathise with these emotions and our role as leaders is to address them where we can.

A lot of our work at Rowan Consulting over the last few weeks could be loosely termed ‘grievances’,  grievances that are roughly borne out of the above 3 areas and there will be more, many more !
People are genuinely struggling to get out of their enforced boxes and emotions everywhere are running high. Some people won’t know what they want, employees who are coming back are showing signs of frustration, and not everyone can really understand or explain the ‘what and the why’ behind their new found frustration, the behaviour that we then see is agitation and lack of perceived engagement.

From my experience, here are a few things that may be useful to remember for you and your teams over the next few months.

Listen – don’t be too quick to judge, when emotions are running high, it’s easy to become one of the following:

The Talker – in attempt to calm things down or sort things out, these people will just keep talking rather than listening and nothing moves forward.
The Solution Provider – they try and solve it, sometimes making the wrong assumptions, and therefore providing the wrong answers, sometimes people just want to talk to find their own answers rather than have someone do it for them.
The Fighter – the most dangerous kind, these meet a challenge with an equal amount of aggression and dominance in attempt to force people around to their way of thinking, (be warned these come in a passive character as well !)

When met with a challenge, my advice to clients is to just listen, try and understand where its coming from, some things you will be able to help with, others you won’t as it will be baggage from somewhere else in their current lives that is not yours to carry or unpack.

Whichever you may be or may witness, remember  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  

Lastly, remember
1. It’s going to take time.
2. We’re all in this at the same point in time, trying to get things right. No one has been here before, so don’t let them tell you they have. In the words of Tom Peters, “this is a once in a century event, You don’t know what you’re doing, I don’t know what I’m doing and if you think you do, go take a lie down til you come to your senses…”
3. You’re not going to get it right, it may take a few attempts to understand what’s going on.
4. Don’t feel like it’s only you or your business that’s experiencing turbulence, this rollercoaster is everywhere, right now.
5. Use your people, now will be the time for collaboration and working together, you won’t have all the
answers but together 2 heads are better than one.

Stay well All x


  • With over 20 years' experience in structuring and growing businesses and teams from inception, through periods of growth and change and finally structuring them ready for sale, Karen and her team have helped dozens of business owners and leaders manage growth and change within their business by concentrating on the human side of running and managing a business. An experienced Organisational Coach and HR Consultant, Karen has extensive experience in working with growth SMEs and a proven background in delivery and development of employees against business goals, her specialism is in working with small and medium size companies, delivering operational, people-based solutions that are commercially focused and enable growth of the business. Karen also works as a Non-Executive Director and Trustee and is a trained Predictive Index (PI) Analyst.

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