Welcome to the New Normal

Welcome to the New Normal – there is NO “going back”

You're probably already a bit jaded with all the "New Normal" hype flying around, but without meaning any disrespect to those lives and families that have suffered hardship and loss, the global pandemic is without a doubt the most exciting, fascinating, bewildering time for a Foresight Professional like me to experience!

We spend our lives considering the impacts and implications of change in order to explore the multiple possible and probable paths that the future might time in order that our clients can build their "preferred" future. Our work informs future strategy and drives innovation and change. Change (normally) takes place quite slowly and (normally) on an industry and/or geographic level. It's been noted many times in the past that we have a tendency to overestimate the impact of change in the short term and underestimate the impact in the long term .......... but current times are anything but "normal".

Accelerated change has taken place (been forced upon in most cases) across all industries on a global scale - a phenomenon not seen since the last World War and even then there were remote corners of the earth that remained largely untouched - not so much now as this crisis touches everyone, every industry and occupation everywhere.

No matter what you think of the term New Normal - you cannot dispute that there is NO going back to the way it was pre-covid! Click To Tweet

(This is something that I've been trying to hammer home since back in March and those of you that are aware of my penchant for provocative tshirts will not be surprised to discover that the design of the header image comes from my own range of merch and that I've been wearing one during applicable online events 😎 - but I digress).

Panel - New Normal in the age of COVID

I was recently invited to moderate a panel session titled "In the age of COVID-19, what is the New Normal in Financial Services?" for DX Connect. The session recording is available to watch on demand (just click on the image to the right - free registration required to watch) for those of you interested specifically in the financial services side of things, but my intention in this post is to highlight a small selection of the discussion points that touched on aspects of the New Normal that cut across all of our lives

Working from home was the first aspect of the New Normal that almost every single panel member brought up - something I had previously described as "the largest remote working proof of concept in history". That's old news now and pretty much all of you reading this will be familiar with the challenges of suddenly having to enable staff en masse to work remotely and all of the process failures and complications that were suddenly highlighted. But there have been both massive positives and some unexpected consequences. People in general have become far more comfortable with digital channels - particularly video calls and interactions. Peter Tilton (SVP of Digital at Royal Bank of Canada) told us about their experience of rapidly digitising complex processes like mortgage advice and applications, providing their 1.6 million customers access to their thousands of advisors that all had to work from home pretty much overnight. Customers have at last realised that if they can FaceTime their family across the world, there is no reason why they shouldn't be comfortable with a similar experience from their bank. Although, I have to admit that given the long queues of people lined up outside the banks in my local high street this week, I do wonder what it's going to take to make the habit stick in the future!!

The topic of commercial / office space came up quite a few times in the pre-interviews for the panel and it has been a recurring theme across many of the calls I have been on recently. The main question being "will there be a glut or a shortage of office space" as people return to work at some point? The debate rages across the spectrum with some saying that given social distancing rules, there will be a huge shortage of space - but this is predicated on people wanting to or having to return to a physical place of work. Numerous polls and surveys seem to indicate that a large proportion of people don't ever want to "go back" to a physical office - at least not for every single day of the month. There is talk of "decentralised" or "hub and spoke" style offices and hybrid spaces emerging to cater for those in dire need of physical interaction but these will come at a cost at a time when budgets are going to be tighter than ever, so I'm not sure that anyone will be in a rush to expand their physical footprint right now. There have also been some interesting debates over salaries - should they be decreased for remote workers who no longer face the costs of commuting or should they be increased to compensate for the fact that they are using their own home and are no longer occupying expensive real estate (not to mention the extra spend on tea and biscuits 😂). With all the redundancies and changes afoot, there is no doubt that the employment market is about to undergo a massive shift but I won't get into this one right now ........ it's complicated!

The shift to working from home as part of the New Normal has obviously had an impact on property prices with buyers placing a premium on those with a dedicated home office or ability to extend or build - which in turn has accelerated the UK government's decision to relax planning permission (it was already on the cards pre-COVID) to accommodate for this.

One of the aspects of working from home that I've found quite fascinating has been the associated culture changes in organisations - many of which appear to have become "more human" as a result. Our homes are our most private places and with the proliferation of video conferencing, we have been given glimpses of normality with kids shouting in the background, delivery drivers knocking loudly at the door, pets demanding attention during conference calls - my cat has a bad habit of jumping up on my desk and sticking her nose (or worse, the other end!!!) into the camera for all to see. While this is obviously unacceptable in a corporate environment, I've seen people being more patient, more accepting, more empathetic and more understanding of their co-workers during calls. Many meetings have been more relaxed and dare I say that many have been more productive as most people just want to get off the damn call!!!

I do think that Apple's "The whole working from home thing" video captures the reality that many of us have experienced - even if it is an advert it's a bloody good one in my personal opinion!

New Normal workwear

On the topic of being more relaxed, the work from home dress code is obviously entirely different to that of the office! I've been on calls with everyone from the CEO's of major companies all the way through the organisation chart at pretty much every level and across the genders, tshirts have been by far the most common workwear in evidence. This has thrown the fashion industry into a bit of turmoil as not only are people no longer "dressing up" for work but they haven't been leaving the house at all. There has been a spike in the "athleisure" category as millions around the world decided to work out in their living rooms after an alarming amount of weight gain during the early days of lockdown (or was that just me??), but high fashion has taken a major nose-dive! As people are currently more cost conscious, there has been a surge in the "Zuckerberg" approach of wearing the same outfit every day - but to avoid those awkward "didn't you wear that yesterday" questions on Zoom calls, the "down below" fashion of having days of the week on your underwear has now moved "up above" ........

During the panel, Roy Kao (Advisor to the Holt Accelerator based in Canada) highlighted an important issue faced by startup investors in a digital world that really resonated with me - one of TRUST. There are some things that are difficult to "read" in a digital environment - body language being one of those. This is something I face when delivering online keynotes where I can't see the audience or get a feel for the room. Roy shared that in the past, it was common practise for investors to "get in the room" with the founding team in order to "feel their energy" as in the early stages of any startup, "gut feel" plays an important part of the funding decision and this has always been an important part of their due diligence process. It's going to be interesting to see how this impacts startup funding in the future as for now, they are proceeding with caution ..........

eCommerce has unsurprisingly seen a massive increase with Amazon being one of the biggest winners of all with Jeff Bezos reportedly adding £10 BILLION to his wealth in just one day thanks to Amazon's share price soaring! On the plus side, the surge has seen Hermes in the UK planning to add more than 10,000 jobs to cater for the increased demand for deliveries - one has to wonder what the long term impact on physical retail stores will be as hoards of new customers become far more comfortable with online shopping - will their buying habits be changed forever? Will the high streets ever recover from this? Is this the catalyst event that many have been waiting for?

On the flip side, Pedro Coelho (Chairman and CEO of BNI Europa, Portugal) highlighted how badly the tourism and hospitality industry has been decimated during lockdown. But there have been some winners too with a notable rise in home food delivery services. Many restaurateurs have already stated that they will have difficulty running a profitable business under social distancing rules. While a large number might be forced to close, many are busy converting their operations into "dark kitchens" providing a purely takeaway model. Others are looking at a wide variety of innovative methods to deliver new customer experiences. The Forest Road Brewing Company in London for example, was quick to respond to the closure of pubs by converting a van into a "pint-mobile", delivering freshly pulled pints of beer direct to customers' doorsteps! Another UK brewery - Brewdog - was one of the first to switch their operations to make hand sanitiser - donating tens of thousands of bottles to the NHS during the initial period of global shortage - many other breweries around the world followed suite.

Accelerated innovation has been a ubiquitous topic across every single conversation I've been involved in lately. In fact Adam Davis (Head of Delivery at 11:FS) provided a brilliant soundbite by saying that COVID has blasted through bureaucracy - @adamd8 Adam Davis @11fs Click To Tweet  in organisations. This was echoed across all the panel members with each citing examples of rapid change an innovation taking place within days and weeks instead of the months and years it previously took pre-covid. One of my early favourite examples was the way that Starling Bank quickly reacted to the needs of customers self isolating (way back in the early stages of lockdown) by releasing a "connected card" feature that enabled customers to pass on a second debit card to people shopping in physical stores on their behalf without them having to hand over their primary card and pin for the purpose.

There have since been floods of accelerated innovation stories around the world and across industries - I hope that every organisation is at the same time taking a hard look at what prevented this level of innovation in the past? While it's true that much of this innovation activity has been driven by sheer necessity during survival mode, I get the sense that a large proportion was previously stuck in outdated processes and unnecessary red tape. As things begin to stabilise, I hope that management applies what they have learned during the crisis and takes the opportunity to rethink and revitalise their innovation processes.

New Normal Furloughpreneur

Are you one?

The innovative spirit has not been limited to large companies and organisations however. Millions of people across the world that were furloughed from work now face long term financial difficulty depending on the level of compensation they received. Many are also still unsure if they will ever be able to return to their original job (my eldest daughter being one of these - give her a shout if you are looking for a Marketing Maven of note!!) due to the financial impact of the crisis on their employer. While many people spent time binge watching Netflix, the sudden realisation that depending on a single income stream is a huge financial risk has sparked a new breed of "Furloughpreneur" to look for alternative ways of complimenting (or even replacing) their primary income. From online fitness coaching and cocktail making to poop scooping and bin washing, individuals all over the world have risen to the challenge of starting a #sidehustle - which may one day result in them achieving FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early). These are the silent innovators and rebel mindsets that so many organisations will be in desperate need of as they face rebooting in the New Normal. You really do need to seek them out and harness their creative thinking (while they still work for you) - perhaps poll your employees to find out how they spent their time during Furlough - you never know what new talents and skills people have developed unless you ask them and you might just be able to tap into a whole new group of Intrapreneurs that you hadn't previously identified!

Skills for the emerging New Normal are another hot topic that has frequently come up in conversations - not just for the above panel. While students globally struggled to cope with online classes and school closures, I have to admit overlooking an important area of education - that of work experience! A pretty much global tradition, how would students be able to gain their all important work experience during this crisis? Would this delay their plans for an entire year (or even more)? It was heartwarming to hear Peter Tilton talk about the Royal Bank of Canada's initiative to provide 1,400 summer students with a "Virtual Work Experience" - something that I'd not heard of before - if you have heard of other organisations doing the same (regardless of industry), I'd really like to hear about it!

There is no doubt that debt is probably one of the biggest causes of concern on a global basis right now. Consumers that have taken advantage of payment holidays are now struggling to balance their finances and many of them are still facing prolonged period of income uncertainty. Credit scores have plunged and the old credit models are even more broken than they ever were. People and companies are going to need help for the foreseeable future but banks are facing the largest default event in recent history and understandably cautious to extend further credit. Adam pointed to Open Banking and new credit scoring models and Fintechs as a possible solution and I apologise for not remembering which panel member brought it up but FICO's new "Financial Resilience Index" was also mentioned as a step in the right direction (maybe - I'll reserve judgement for now). I expect to see a renewed focus on financial management and budgeting apps across the board but if you want a true customer perspective then I'd suggest getting in contact with Sarah Hollinshead (Global Account Director at the RFI group) as they have just released a brand new report called "Understanding the New Normal" which is packed with insights from interviews with 36,000 consumer, 18,000 businesses and 4,000 merchants!

All of the above is but a tiny fragment of the myriad of impacts and implications of the change we are living through. I have spent my entire professional career working with ambiguity and exploring the realms of "The Art of The Possible" and I help individuals and organisations by teaching them how to leverage their own employees to scan the horizon and consider the impacts and implications of change, so that they can start to build the future they want to see come about.

Let's build a New Normal better than the old one ...........


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  1. Pingback: The new normal for conferences (#Money2020) - Chris Skinner's blog

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