Redefining our definition of normal

3 minute read

As the days continue to stretch and pass, the question on everyone’s minds is: when will we return to normal? But, what is normal? One way to conceptualize normal is that it really is just a default option that we are familiar with. We find comfort in routines, which is why being uprooted from our regular schedule can be so jarring. Instead of trying to return to what we knew as normal, we should see this as a time to reconsider if our defaults across our lives and work actually serve us.
How did we get accustomed to our normal before? For those of us who work in an office, the norm of going into work is centuries old, originating from large-scale organizations like governments, trading companies, or religious orders that required workers to create and maintain written records. Although a majority of people still worked from home, having a workstation of a desk, chair, and storage shelves was tied with “a visible statement of prestige and power.” The tipping point of corporate office culture was the seventeenth century, where many occupations started to work from offices, leading to our familiar separation between the office and the home. This made sense as more and more occupations required workers to be physically in the same location to do their work. Yet, even as technology rapidly improved, allowing for the storing and rapid sharing of information, many workers remained in the office.
Research suggests that our stubbornness in continuing this office norm stems from how we interact with each other. Being together in a physical space can increase the amount of interactions, and communicate the “necessary cues of leadership, not to mention enabling collaboration and communication.” However, while there are some benefits to having employees be physically present together, there are some drawbacks as well. Commuting into work can be more than just a nightmare for those that live further out in the suburbs, as research has linked longer commutes with lowered health and well-being. More specifically, one finding suggests that a worker with a negligible commute and 12-hour workday is healthier than a worker with an hour long commute and a 10-hour workday, even when total time is equal. Moreover, workplaces struggle with absenteeism (unplanned absences) and presenteeism (disengagement and lowered productivity), some of which is influenced by the pressure on workers to be physically in the office. For example, when employees spend three to four days working off-site, they experience a boost in engagement
While traditions and norms can give us a shared experience and bring us together, there are times where adjustments and updates must be made. For example, in Japan, the tradition of using a hanko, or a seal, on official documents and contracts stems back from 57AD. Even with digitization, this practice remained, resulting in employees having to “defy social-distancing guidelines and trudge to their offices to put ink to paper” to finalize various documents during the pandemic. On April 27th, a rapid review of this practice was called for, as the seals do present a significant obstacle to teleworking in our current conditions. While it’s important to preserve tradition, it’s just as important to revisit our defaults and evolve. Change doesn’t have to be like a switch, starkly flipping between two states of on and off. It’s more like a dimmer, with gradual adjustments. The pandemic has acted like an accelerant for transformation and change, challenging all of us to reconsider routines we may have taken for granted. 


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This work has been funded by Viewpoint Foundation.