It’s been roughly 12 months since the world shut down. March 2020 is the month that divides the “pre-COVID” and “post-COVID” worlds. When we were in the midst of frantically putting up daily situation reporting to keep our executive management on top of a world changing by the day as the pandemic bore down upon humanity and “normal” gave way to the “new normal”, the first of March became the reference point against which we charted how much things have changed.
We used a basic data visualisation technique to track movements of multiple operations performance metrics relative to a common point in time in the past — the first of March 2020. By charting the percent change of each metric from that baseline point in time, movement of the data points were amplified on graphs and patterns could more easily be spotted. It was evident by mid-March that processing backlogs and customer waiting times were going through the roof as capacity to serve was hobbled by initial work-from-home teething issues, work formerly outsourced was frantically repatriated as overseas sites went on lockdown, and uncertainty gripped personnel suddenly regarded as “non-essential”.
Not much of a work-from-home person myself, I secured what most staff already had for some time — my first remote access service (RAS) account that would enable me to logon to the corporate network outside of the office via a virtual private network (VPN) over the Internet. By mid-April, even critical COVID Command Centre personnel such as myself who were initially required to come to the office twice a week were told to work from home full time. The IT guys had their hands full holding a network together as it creaked under the weight of thousands of employees suddenly logging on remotely. Desktop monitors, external keyboards and laptop stands and docking stations were flying off shelves at office supply stores as it became evident that working off just a laptop on a dining or kitchen table for hours everyday could cause you serious injury. By the end of April our company was delivering office chairs and monitors to employees’ residences to ensure occupational health and safety (OH&S) standards were maintained.
Most rapid of all adaptations to the “new normal” was how we took to the latest remote collaboration technology. As we had long had to work with colleagues located across different sites and who worked from home occasionally, we already had at our disposal a handful of videoconferencing and collaboration applications over which we shared and even worked on files simultaneously. However, moving into the new normal involved going from using these systems occasionally to being completely dependent on them all day every day. Specially at the height of the crisis as the dominoes of normalcy fell left and right almost daily and we hopped from one crisis meeting call to another, new efficiencies around working together were discovered. More half-hour meetings could be booked adjacent to one another and we could jump from one to the other in succession without the downtime involved in physically walking from one room to another pre-COVID and re-setting up.
Suffice to say, there was a cost to all that efficiency as incidences of burnout associated with daily back-to-back meetings coupled with what was to be discovered later to be a form of stress uniquely-associated with remote and video conferencing — the additional cognitive effort of reading non-verbal cues exchanged by meeting participants over video and voice calls. Still, the time gained and money saved from the commutes to and from the office opened an equal amount of opportunity for improved lifestyles and work-life balance.
Eventually, all that really became the new normal as we all found that working from home actually does work and new ways of dealing with the new stresses of these new ways of working were found and applied. Today, on the anniversary of the end of the pre-COVID world, we are now in the midst of an experimental return-to-office (RTO). We are rediscovering what it is like to be having real face-to-face meetings and being able to scribble on whiteboards while collaboratively tackling complex business problems. Being able to experience all that again (to a limited extent) gives us better appreciation of what we lost last year — how easy it is to walk up to or congregate around a colleague’s desk to have spur-of-the-moment discussions, how sketching on a whiteboard while describing a complex concept makes solving complicated problems so much easier, and how not every encounter or interaction with another person at work needs to be a scheduled one.
All that said, the crisis we all knew had to come actually did come and now we live in a different world where new opportunities are up for the picking. There are things that disappeared that we will miss (like hopping onto a plane whenever the weekend “starts”) but we know we will need to forego to some extent if we are to truly learn from all this. A return to normal need not involve a return to old unsustainable habits. It is important that we learn the lessons that 2020 taught us and build a better more resilient society on the back of sustainable lifestyles.
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