Motivated by fear, businesses are valuing creativity as never before.
Over the past 60 to 90 days, I am sure I have heard the term “the new normal” at least a thousand times. Before Covid-19 has run its terrible course, I fully expect to hear it at least a zillion more. But what exactly is “the new normal?”
Sometimes global events become a catalyst for change. Events like the Great Depression and World War II had dramatic, difficult and often devastating impacts on the world. However, those impacts were mostly temporary reactions to transient events, like the aftermath of a very bad storm. Covid-19 is different, which makes trying to visualize and comprehend events, both in the now and the future, so difficult.
Covid-19 truly levels the playing field. Everyone on earth will at some point be impacted, regardless of gender, political orientation, geography, socioeconomic status or faith. Everyone is at risk, and everyone will be impacted in similar ways. That differs from past global events that typically were the cause of regional wars (even WWII did not impact all countries), economic downturns, political eruptions, or local plagues. We really are all in this together.
Short-term, we know some definitions of the new normal include social distancing; self-quarantine; wearing gloves, face masks and other safety devices to reduce the possibility of exposure; plus the social changes caused by stay-at-home dictates that impact how we work, study and interact. This new normal will in time prove to be the relatively short-term definition.
But a year or five from now, will these changes be permanent, or will everyone revert to behavior as usual?
That is the intriguing aspect of our current Covid-19 lifestyle. People everywhere are discovering and embracing new and old technologies. Peers in non-manufacturing industries tell me they are rethinking their office environments and leaning toward making some aspect of work-from-home part of their future “normal.” They are finding many tasks and activities can be done successfully and more efficiently from home, even with children, spouses, and pets underfoot. The technology is there, with identifiable benefits.
Some of my manufacturing neighbors in different industries are sorting through the tasks they can have employees do from home to support the stay-at-home requirements but still stay in operation. Simple tasks like packing product into boxes and basic inspection can often be handled as cottage trades, with kits supplied to an employee to work on at home. And a number of people I have spoken with are aggressively trying to run some automated equipment remotely, so once or twice a day someone can load and unload a work center, then operate it “lights out” from a remote location. Driven by fear, businesses are casting risk aside and valuing creativity as never before.
In our own industry, people are working on ways to keep going with fewer people per work center, shift or location to support social distancing and remain in production of needed product. Some workarounds may appear like something out of Rube Goldberg’s playbook, while others may be schemes that work so well they will eventually become standard operating procedure. The fear of “what if something goes wrong while operating remotely” is being overcome by the reality of “what if we can’t get product out the door.” I am sure robotics combined with machinery that can be operated remotely will become more typical faster than anyone might have thought a few short months ago.
Meanwhile, on the home front, reports say many families have turned off the TV and computer to get away from the barrage of scary and depressing Covid-19 news and are rediscovering traditional social activities such as board games, jigsaw puzzles and card games. Might these very non-tech activities once again become part of the normal fabric of society?
Which brings me back to visualizing what, exactly, “the new normal” will look like. If, as in the past, this is relatively short-lived, as in a matter of months, likely the new normal will appear remarkably similar to the “old” normal. Either way, I fully expect many will conduct a deep-dive post-mortem on what happened and what we learned from the experience. I expect the findings will range from the basics – such as the need to be more careful with personal hygiene – to the comprehensive – opportunities for improvement in the home and workplace. Concepts that may have sounded good but did not work well when put to the test will fall by the wayside. Others that proved to work far better than first imagined will be analyzed to be harnessed, expanded and integrated further into work and home life.
Automation and communication will be winners. Tools such as Zoom and Skype will be better harnessed to enable remote interactivity, and working remotely may become normal. A refocus on the opportunities and best practices of lights-out technology, possibly with further integration of some robotics, will no longer be viewed as futuristic. The work-life balancing act may tip toward time spent at home.
Most significantly, it appears “the new normal” may have less to do with how we reacted to Covid-19, but rather how we came to learn to overcome our natural aversion to risk and embrace the new.