Since March, there has been what seems like a whole dictionary worth of new terms thrown at us by media outlets. These aren’t newly invented words, they are simply words that previously had different and much less significant meaning in the cultural vernacular. New normal, social distancing, essential vs. nonessential, WFH – all comprise a set of linguistics that are essential to know living in the new normal.
In retrospect, changes in the collective vernacular nearly always represents larger scale changes in the collective consciousness. And with that, comes a choice, whether conscious or not, to either adapt gracefully or resist by continuing on with the same operating systems as before. From an evolutionary perspective, this particular threshold is especially interesting in that it’s essentially the first time that the globe has come into a new collective consciousness because of a disrupting force at nearly the same time. Never before has the collective consciousness shifted so drastically in the span of just one week. Technological advances over the past few decades have created a global network where communication is instantaneous, therefore affording our species an instantaneous collective paradigm shift. The magnitude of this is, as we’ve all heard 1,000 times over again, unprecedented.
The issue with coining this time period as the “new normal” is in the inherent resistance to change that comes with using the word normal, implying that we are going about our lives as we were before, just with masks and 6ft distance. For most people, living in the new normal could more accurately be called a threshold into an unknown future. In fact, a philosopher at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, Toby Ord, coined a term for the era we are in – the Precipice. In his book, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Ord explains that we are in an era where the risk of humanity’s own future is teetering on the edge of a cliff of its own making. Given the stakes of the time period we are living in, it’s more important than ever that we invest our attention and presence into evaluating the values we are bringing forward as we cross this threshold into the new normal.
For those of us living in highly individualistic societies like the U.S., considering how day-to-day actions affect the strangers around us might feel unnatural and uncomfortable. This cultural shift has been met in varying forms and so far, the success, or lack thereof, in workplace leadership’s response strategy mirrors the findings of social researchers like Brene Brown and Google’s research initiative Project Aristotle. The past decade of research in the field of workplace dynamics has found time and time again that results-driven performance and empathy, care and connection are not mutually exclusive items and the most successful leaders are those that are able to unite the two.
Organizations have been largely operating on a results driven system despite the growing research on why this leads to burnout. Google’s initiative is particularly interesting considering the immense collection of data that is available at their fingertips, not only because of the nature of Google’s services, but also by employing a mere 51,000 people. Researchers asked questions related to team dynamics and found it nearly impossible to recognize any sort of pattern in the findings. Ultimately, what they found was that the qualities that make employees and team relations successful are not easy to empirically measure. Rather, the number one factor driving high-performing employees is psychological safety – the unspoken rules and soft skills like empathy, compassion and courage that allow for vulnerability.
It comes as no surprise that a change of this magnitude has tested the strength of the workplace systems that were currently in place. In or out of the workplace, we are all facing a reckoning of sorts with the impermanence of life. With that, comes an opportunity to find connections that we might have previously been lacking from the shared experience that comes with living through a global pandemic. From politics to media corporations to restaurants, industries across the board are ubiquitously working to adjust to this new normal. The question that will determine the future of these industries is whether the workplaces and systems that comprise each industry will resist change or lean into change.