The Next Normal Workplace: Preparing for the Next Paradigm

As we move into the post-COVID paradigm, business leaders will need to prepare for “the next normal workplace.”

According to many analysts, the workplace will be one of many aspects of business that will be fundamentally reshaped as a result of COVID-19.

Many business leaders understandably focus on business strategy, operations, business continuity, and many other necessary measures.

However, it is equally important to future-proof the workplace and the workforce, since both of these fuel the organization’s performance.

In this guide, we’ll explore the future of work after COVID-19, how to improve the workplace, effective employee training methods, and more.

How COVID-19 Will Change Business and the Workplace

Clearly, the current pandemic is having a massive impact on the global economy, the business landscape, and our daily lives.

Though many of us hope that the world will simply “return to normalcy” after the pandemic, most research firms claim that we will be entering a new paradigm – that the COVID-19 pandemic will permanently reshape the world as we know it.

McKinsey, for instance, claims that the pandemic will ultimately redefine the global economic and social order.

Many others agree that the world is transitioning to a “new normal” that will redefine many aspects of the business landscape.

The Business Landscape

The economy, the marketplace, and the competitive landscape are all shifting under our feet.

Many industries are suffering significantly, a select few are excelling, and others are operating relatively normally.

Clearly, the pandemic is gradually reshaping the business landscape, and the longer the pandemic lasts, the more deeply it will impact the economy.

As a result, in the coming months and years, we can expect a changed competitive landscape.

These changes will affect:

  • Competitors and partners
  • Business strategies
  • Customer sentiment and behavior
  • Regulations and laws

Every industry is unique, so each organization should assess its own audience, marketplace, and so on.

For that reason, each business should assess its own circumstances before making any significant organizational or workplace changes.

Customer Perspectives and Behavior

The coronavirus will continue to shift customer perspectives and sentiment. Those changes will, in turn, affect expectations and behavior.

Accenture has suggested that:

  • Businesses will need to work harder to earn customers’ trust. Discretionary spending has plummeted in many industries, along with the health of the global financial system. In the uncertain post-pandemic period, people will be drawn to the familiar and less likely to trust unfamiliar brands with their money. When reopening, businesses should assess the new cost of confidence, identify opportunities, and understand how customer expectations are evolving.
  • Customers will be more likely to “cocoon” at home, which will fuel the growth of home-related products and services. The home is familiar and safe, so many people will choose to stay at home, even after restrictions ease. This trend will contribute to a number of other business trends, such as increased investment in home-related products and virtual products.
  • Virtual products and services will become far more popular, if not the norm. Another consequence of these trends will be the growth of virtual services and products. According to Accenture, if customers can do it online, they will – and we have already seen upticks in investments in virtual reality and augmented reality technology. In the next normal, virtual reality will be used for shopping, gaming, collaboration, and more.

Though these trends may certainly hold true for certain demographics, predicting customer behavior is very difficult, as Perficient has pointed out.

Given the complexity and uncertainty of the current crisis, such predictions are even more difficult. Despite prevailing concerns over the virus, for instance, one study revealed that 63% of shopper felt comfortable visiting retail stores in mid-June of 2020.

This demonstrates the importance of continually monitoring customer sentiment in real-time, then adjusting business strategies as needed.

Employees and the Workplace

Employee perspectives will also shift after the pandemic, for many of the same reasons mentioned above. 

Increased concerns over health and well-being, for instance, will compel many organizations to make significant changes to the workforce and the workplace.

A few such changes include:

  • More remote working. Remote working became standard for many businesses during the first few months of 2020. This trend will undoubtedly become more common in the years to come, since it is clearly safer from a health perspective. As discussed below, telecommuting also offers many other advantages for both employers and employees, such as boosting productivity and job satisfaction.
  • Increased use of automation and artificial intelligence (AI).  Automation platforms and AI can both fuel major productivity gains across the organization. These technologies were being implemented before the outbreak, but the pandemic has demonstrated their value during times of crisis. Automation tools, for instance, can perform many mundane tasks even without human operators.
  • The adoption of new health and safety measures. Even after the pandemic, governments and citizens alike will be more conscientious about health and hygiene. As a result, many workplaces will redesign procedures and workplaces to reduce the potential for infection.
  • More advanced digital workflows. The adoption of new digital tools will continue to accelerate for the foreseeable future. This trend will, among other things, contribute to the evolution of the digital workplace. Digital workflows and business processes will become more complex, contributing to an increased need for employee training and development.

Though every business is unique, changes such as these will become far more widespread. In fact, such trends may become defining features in the workplace of the future.

Below, we will examine these ideas in far more detail – but before we do, it is important to learn how the pandemic will play out in the coming months and years.

A Journey Map to the Next Normal

The next normal will, as we have seen, look very different in many ways.

However, those changes will not occur overnight. Many of them will take several months or even years to come about.

Business leaders should keep this in mind when designing changes that will impact the workplace.

Crisis

During the initial phase of the pandemic, the actual crisis, organizations focused on several key areas:

  • Business continuity. Business continuity planning helps reduce the negative impacts of disruptions, disasters, or emergencies that impact business operations. These can include natural disasters, workplace accidents, fires, or, as COVID-19 has demonstrated, pandemics. During the first stage of the outbreak businesses focused their efforts on maintaining key business functions to their best abilities.
  • Remote working. Telecommuting became a mainstay for many organizations around the world and a primary means of ensuring business continuity. Companies with no telecommuting experience quickly adopted virtual workplace software, such as video conferencing tools or digital adoption solutions.
  • Protecting workers and customers. Another main focus during this time was protecting the organization’s people, including customers, employees, business partners, and other stakeholders. These protections can come in the form of health measures, such as social distancing rules, as well as financial protections or job security.

In short, the first stage of the crisis revolved around response efforts and damage control. 

As government restrictions relaxed, however, businesses were allowed to restore operations in many countries, at least to a certain extent. 

Response and Recovery

After a few months, public health restrictions eased and businesses gradually resumed operations.

As of this writing, those recovery efforts are still underway, and they will be for some time to come.

Restoring normal business operations is certainly no easy task – a number of factors interfere with these restoration activities, including government restrictions, decreased consumer spending, disrupted supply chains, and so forth.

This phase of the pandemic will continue until the outbreak ends, which will be ushered in by a vaccine, according to many experts. Of course, the development and distribution of a vaccine will also take time, so the next normal will not arrive overnight.

Business leaders should prepare for a long-term period of muted growth and stagnation, which will be marked by periods of sporadic spending and virus-fueled restrictions.

The Next Normal

The introduction of a vaccine will mark the beginning of a new era, which many are calling “the next normal.”

As mentioned, that age will bring about changes to customer behavior, employee expectations, the economy, society, and more.

According to McKinsey, organizations must reimagine and reform their current structure in order to survive and succeed in the post-COVID era.

Other research firms also suggest that the post-viral age will be marked by continuous change.

For that reason, businesses should:

  • Monitor the business landscape in real-time. After the pandemic, the business landscape will evolve quickly. For that reason, businesses will need to closely monitor areas such as customer sentiment, competitor activity, and economic conditions. 
  • Continually innovate. Once the economy restarts, there will be room for growth. Businesses that pursue innovation and growth will have an opportunity to capture market share, expand operations, and even dominate in their industries. 
  • Become lean, agile, and adaptable. Agile and lean business practices emphasize data-driven business practices, customer-centricity, responsiveness, and adaptability. In the next normal, the business landscape will evolve quickly and continuously. In such an environment, adaptability will become key and may even separate the leaders from the laggards.

It is naturally impossible to know what the future holds with complete certainty. However, current marketplace volatility will undoubtedly continue, and it will likely accelerate once the economy begins to recover fully.

In such an uncertain environment, agility, innovation, and responsiveness will become crucial, for the business as well as the workforce.

Future-Proofing the Workplace: Tips, Best Practices, Do’s, and Don’ts

Below, we’ll look at a few key ways to prepare the workforce and the workplace for the post-COVID world.

Train employees and build a digitally savvy workforce

Organizational performance depends on employee productivity, and in the digital workplace, that productivity depends heavily on their proficiency with digital tools.

To ensure that employees stay proficient and productive, organizations must be the ones to provide digital training themselves. 

After all, each company will use a unique ecosystem of tools and workflows – and since those digital tool sets are continually evolving, new hires cannot be expected to know those workflows beforehand.

When training the workforce, it is important to focus on areas such as:

  • Streamlined onboarding. First impressions matter, even when it comes to software. Simplifying the onboarding process helps to reduce cognitive load, shorten time-to-productivity, and improve the user experience. The result: higher engagement and productivity. 
  • Complete workflows. Digital workflows often consist of multiple software tools, which is why cross-training is so important. Cross-trained employees are more agile, they learn more quickly, and they are more productive. 
  • Ongoing micro-training. Since the digital workplace is continually changing, employees must also learn continuously. Just-in-time training solutions reduce waste and improve knowledge retention. Digital adoption platforms, for instance, offer training directly inside an application only when it is needed.

A well-trained workforce will help to improve organizational performance, agility, innovation, and resilience, especially when training is complemented by the other strategies discussed below.

Improve the employee experience

Like the customer experience, the employee experience will impact important metrics such as performance, engagement, job satisfaction, turnover, and more.

According to Gallup, the employee experience refers to the set of interactions that employees have with their employer.

Gallup breaks that journey down into seven stages:

  • Attract
  • Hire
  • Onboard
  • Engage
  • Perform
  • Develop
  • Depart

A framework such as this one allows managers to set specific goals and measurable objectives, then develop employee experience strategies aimed at improving those targets.

Adjust the organizational culture

Organizational culture, like the employee experience, influences businesses in a number of important ways. 

Culture can affect the workplace experience, employee productivity, organizational performance, the customer experience, and more.

Like the organization that it belongs to, culture should be unique, which means that there is no such thing as a “perfect” organizational culture.

There are, however, certain cultural traits that can be beneficial in almost all cases, such as:

  • Pro-learning. Perpetual learning is fast-becoming the norm in the modern business world. In such a world, employees will be required to constantly learn new skills and workflows. A culture that values learning, therefore, will be essential.
  • Digital. In an ideal digital workplace, there is a seamless interplay between employees and their tools. A digital culture implies that digital tools are deeply integrated into the workplace, workflows, and business processes. 
  • Self-reliant. Employees who can operate independently will be more efficient, confident, and productive. To enable this mindset shift, it is important to provide employees with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

Organizational culture change can be implemented over the long term through business activities such as talent management and employee training. 

The only way to make rapid culture changes, however, is through organizational restructuring, according to organizational culture expert Edgar Schein

Regardless of which approach a business takes, it is worth noting that culture change does come with risks, so those risks should be weighed against the potential rewards before investing in a culture change effort.

Modernize IT systems and tools

Digital technology is a prerequisite for success in the digital age, and it will become even more necessary after the pandemic. As mentioned earlier, COVID-19 is fast-tracking digital transformation in many areas, so businesses must prepare for a post-pandemic world that is more technologically advanced.

Training and culture are both important, but these are only useful if the business has a modern IT infrastructure.

Businesses should adopt emerging technology such as:

  • Cloud computing. Cloud computing is essential for any modern business, but it became even more necessary during the pandemic. Remote working, after all, relies on workers’ ability to securely access files online. 
  • Virtual tools and technology. Virtual tools and software, as mentioned, will grow significantly in the near future. Though gaming is one of the most well-known use cases of virtual reality, it can be used in the workplace as well. Virtual conferences and virtual meetings are one ubiquitous use case. Yet it is also being used in specialized fields, such as architecture and construction.
  • Automation platforms. Robotic process automation (RPA) refers to the automation of software processes. These tools can perform repetitive tasks, such as data entry, freeing up human time for more valuable activities. Automation reduces costs, error rates, and process timelines – resulting in major performance boosts for the company. 
  • AI. In spite of the financial crisis, investments in AI remained high in 2020. There are a number of obstacles that hinder successful AI adoption, such as a lack of staff skills or understanding AI and its benefits. However, given the proper scenario and implementation, AI can offer major advantages when it is used properly.
  • Digital adoption solutions. Digital adoption platforms (DAPs) provide in-app training to software users. WalkMe’s platform, for instance, provides automated context-based guidance and software walkthroughs on demand. This allows employees to receive personalized software training, no matter where they are located.

Modern technology promises a great deal of value, but to unlock that value, businesses must redesign business processes and ensure employees are well-trained, as covered earlier.

Stay data-driven and goal-oriented

Data-driven processes are more efficient, productive, and effective.

Leveraging data in any area of business improves outcomes, in large part because it helps employees stay more objective. Rather than making decisions based on emotions, instinct, or preconceived notions, data keeps processes tied to real-world information.

Here are a few tips for leveraging data-driven processes in workplace development programs:

  • Set objectives directly tied to performance goals. Measurable objectives, such as employee productivity, can be used to understand the value of workforce improvement efforts. Those same metrics, in turn, can then be connected to larger goals, such as organizational performance.
  • Use appropriate analytics tools. Software analytics, included in digital adoption platforms, can offer insight into employees’ software activities, their understanding of digital tools, and their learning needs. Employee surveys can tell managers how employees feel about particular changes to the workplace, which can, in turn, affect other performance metrics.
  • Create a data-driven culture. A data culture, like a digital culture, ingrains a data-friendly mindset into employee behavior. Employees will be more likely to incorporate data into their work activities, and, as a consequence, reap the rewards of being data-driven. 
  • Measure, learn, and adapt. Data is only useful if it is acted upon. Workplace improvement efforts should be built around a cycle of data collection, analysis, and action. 

With the right data-driven approach, workplace improvements will have a much greater chance of success.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About the Post-COVID Workplace

Here are five of the most commonly asked questions about the future of work and the post-pandemic workplace.

Is remote working the future?

Some have claimed that the future of work is remote.

Given the explosion of telecommuting in 2020 and the increased concern over public health, this logic certainly makes sense.

Also, there are plenty of other benefits to remote working besides health and safety.

For instance:

  • Remote workers are generally more productive
  • Many people prefer to work from home
  • Employers save money on office overhead

Reasons such as these are very compelling, but telecommuting does have its downsides. Working from home can increase feelings of isolation, for instance, and make it more difficult to establish a workplace culture.

Chances are, the workplace of the future will involve more remote working, but the pandemic won’t spell the end of the office.

Instead, we will likely see increased adopt of telecommuting, along with changes to work procedures and workforce composition.

What types of health and safety measures will come into effect?

Public health measures will naturally vary from region to region, but we can extrapolate based on current trends.

Until the end of the pandemic, we can expect to see:

  • Social distancing regulations
  • Requirements related to contact tracing apps
  • Workplace health checks for customers and employees
  • Potential lockdowns and restrictions in the event of further outbreaks

Once the pandemic has ended and a vaccine has been distributed, many of these restrictions may also come to an end. 

These types of procedures will almost certain have a lasting impact, however, resulting in employees and workplaces that are more focused on hygiene and well-being.

Which industries will see the biggest changes in the workplace?

Any enterprise that employees knowledge workers will have a truly virtual workplace – after all, virtual working became a necessity in the first few months of 2020 alone.

However, other industries may face far bigger transformations.

Some, such as meat packing, may be susceptible to automation, which could displace many workers from that industry.

Others may see an increase in public health regulations, such as food services, hospitality, or travel.

Besides COVID-19, what other trends will shape the future workplace?

The pandemic has certainly become a major focus for many organizations. Since the outbreak will have such a deep impact on the future of work, that should become a major area of focus.

However, there are many other trends that should be factored in when designing a long-term workplace improvement plan.

For instance, digital transformation and digital technology will continue to advance in many areas. And those advances will continue to reshape the work environment alongside the other pandemic-fueled trends mentioned above.

Many other standard economic forces, such as geopolitical events and customer demand, will continue evolving irrespective of the crisis.

The gravity of the pandemic is certainly undeniable, but it is important not to focus on that at the exclusion of all else – both before and after the crisis, employers will still need to focus on creating a productive, positive work environment for their employees.

What is the best way to address the digital skills gap?

The digital skills gap refers to a lack of key software skills in the modern workforce. 

The gap has been widening in recent years as software developments outpace employee learning. It has become problematic for many businesses, inhibiting performance, innovation, and productivity.

The best way to close the gap is through many of the workplace improvement activities covered above.

Namely, organizations should:

  • Provide modern workforce training solutions, such as digital adoption platforms
  • Simplify onboarding in order to decrease time-to-competency
  • Cultivate a digital workplace culture
  • Improve the employee experience

To close the skills gap both economically and effectively, it is important to adopt the proper training solution.

Employees need training that seamlessly integrates into the workplace, without adding too much complexity.

A Few of the Biggest Challenges to Workplace Change Programs

Any organizational change program will face challenges, including workplace improvement projects. Generally speaking, the larger the change project, the bigger the obstacles.

Here are a few of the most common barriers to change:

Employee Resistance

People naturally prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar, which is one reason why employees resist change. 

Other fears, such as the fear of incompetency, can fuel that resistance. 

Proper communication and training can diffuse this resistance before it obstructs the change effort. 

Explaining how a change will personally benefit employees, for instance, can improve their acceptance and support of a project. New workplace software may be daunting for employees, since it will require them to learn new workflows – but learning that software can also benefit their careers, streamline daily routines, and so forth.

Change managers often focus heavily on this area, since it is one of the most common barriers to change.

Budget Constraints

Financial resources can also become an issue for many businesses, especially during the pandemic. 

As with any other business activity, the risks and returns should be evaluated and balanced against competing initiatives to determine their feasibility. 

Workplace improvement programs may not be the top priority during the pandemic, since finances are tight for many organizations. 

However, as the marketplace begins to reopen and we enter the next normal, there will be more room for growth. There will also be a greater need for a modern, digital-first workplace.

Executive Buy-In

Buy-in should be obtained early on for any organizational change project. 

Without that support, small problems can easily escalate into large ones, which can then derail a project completely. 

An executive sponsor, however, can provide the backing needed to ensure a project’s success.

When making a business case for a workplace improvement program, it is useful to highlight how the project will benefit the organization as well as specific departments. For instance, if a case is being made for the adoption of new digital training software, then executives will be more likely to support the project if they can see how employee productivity would improve within their division.

Poor Communication

Successful change depends heavily on an effective communication strategy. 

Inviting participation from employees, engaging in two-way dialogue, and other communication techniques are essential. 

Opening up communication channels will streamline a change program and significantly improve its chances of success. If managers simply mandate a change, or if they communicate poorly, then employees can feel alienated and besieged. 

On the other hand, by allowing employees to participate in making the change, resistance will drop and productivity will increase. 

Effective communication strategies, in short, can literally make or break an organizational change project.

Culture

Culture also plays an important role in organizational change. 

In some cases, organizational culture can inhibit change, while in others, it can facilitate change. Or, in some cases, it will have little or no effect.

Change managers should assess their culture early on, then determine whether a culture change will help or hurt the project.

Since culture changes, like any other organizational change, are investments with specific risks and rewards, they should only be undertaken when necessary. 

Final Thoughts

The next normal workplace will look similar in many ways to the workplace we see today.

Remote working, health and hygiene, and digital-centric trends will continue to dominate the workplace of the future.

However, the pandemic will undoubtedly continue to shape the workplace of the future, driving digital adoption, automation, and improved health practices. At the same time, external forces such as customer sentiment will exert an influence on workplace improvement strategies.

Digital technology, however, should remain a primary focus for employers – not only will it continue to evolve during the pandemic, it can help organizations become more resilient and effective. 

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.