The New and (Dare We Say) Better Normal

Trying to wrap your head around the day to day implications of this “new normal” is challenging at best…this is unchartered territory, and we seem to be figuring it out as we go. However, the bigger question may be, “What are the long-term implications of this global crisis?” Recently, the Chair of DHG’s Executive Committee asked a very interesting question: “What is it about this ‘new normal’ that you want to keep when we come out on the other side of this virus?” The question stopped me in my tracks as all I had been thinking about was how much longer until we can get back to the way it was. And, of course, what a silly thought – there is no getting back to the way it was. Our world and our lives will be significantly changed by virtue of this experience. Ironically though, we may look back on this time as having had a silver lining and a time when we took a positive leap forward on many fronts.

Our firm’s tactical response to the coronavirus and our strategy to meet the challenges of this pandemic have been designed to minimize the impact on our people, provide superb support to our clients and protect the longevity of the firm. When we compare our strategy to what others are doing and what the pundits are recommending, it seems we are focused on the right things. The Harvard Business Review article “The Coronavirus Crisis Doesn’t Have to Lead to Layoffs” by Tarki, Levy and Weiss, suggests companies communicate openly, share the pain (meaning that leadership take the first financial “hit”), ask employees to voice their ideas, consider all your nonobvious options for reducing costs and lead with confidence and courage. Check, check and check! Even though we are doing the best we can, like most organizations, we will get some of it right and also experience some missteps. Our good fortune was that much of this work began 14 months ago as a team of thought leaders in the firm came together to develop a plan to address the next economic downturn well in advance. That said, who could have predicted that the world would change in this extraordinary fashion, so the net result is that we are being thoughtful, purposeful, intentional and even hopeful as we plan and execute.

Using Thoughtfulness, Decisiveness and Communicating to Build Confidence and Trust

As we reflect on our response to this crisis, there are at least three lessons that stand out and will certainly inform our “return to normal” state of being. First, we have a whole new level of appreciation for “what-if thinking” and planning for the worst. Across the organization, individuals and departments are already using this crisis as a call to action to do “what-if planning” with greater clarity, purpose and commitment. Second, we are likely to benefit long term by our decisiveness during this time when making decisions quickly is paramount. Our “ready, aim, aim again, do a risk analysis, aim again, discuss, re-think, aim and fire” comfort zone has been forever challenged as we have been forced to quickly analyze our options and make decisions. Third, and perhaps most important, is the impact and experience of having a leadership team and a CEO leading the organization through this journey with courage, confidence and care for our people and clients. The take away here is all about communication. Certainly, most leadership teams are doing the very best they can, but the question is are they making those efforts visible to their teams at large? While confidence in leadership would be considered by most organizations as a critical success factor, now more than ever, this asset is invaluable as we make the tough decisions needed to weather this storm. A belief that leadership is making decisions for the good of the whole helps people understand and appreciate actions even when they are difficult to swallow.

Constant communication has proven to be a great source of comfort and confidence for our teams even when the answer to the question is, “We don’t know for sure, and can’t predict, but we are paying attention.” Over-communicating is more welcomed in this crisis environment. As we know, a key tenant of communication is honesty. People want to hear the truth, they want to know what is going on even when the truth create an elevated sense of anxiety, and people prefer to know the true nature of situations. Stephen Covey wrote an entire book, Speed of Trust, that promotes the idea that when we have faith, trust and confidence in leadership, our performance improves exponentially. This shared experience with a trusted coxswain at the forefront will undoubtedly serve us well as we continue to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Constant communication has proven to be a great source of comfort and confidence for our teams even when the answer to the question is, “We don’t know for sure, and can’t predict, but we are paying attention."

Our long term vision, expressed in our mantra, has been that we will emerge from this crisis even stronger than before, but what exactly does that mean?

The Future of Flexibility

On the professional front, it has been a pleasant surprise to many that the virtual world has, in many ways, proven to be an efficient, if unfamiliar, way to work. Interestingly, DHG held a collaboration event just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that focused on building our approach to flexibility at the firm. Working from home was obviously one of the strategies that received much attention. Who knew that in just a few weeks we would all be involved in a firm-wide experiment in working remotely? Many of the concerns expressed in the collaboration event were soon dispelled as our need to perform became paramount. They say that necessity is the mother of invention…so we made it work. Going forward, the mandate that people work exclusively from the office is likely to be challenged given our experience, and the notion that we are most productive when working from the office is likely to carry far less weight. In addition, our client’s expectations of on-site work are also likely to change significantly due to this virtual interaction and engagement we have experienced with them over the last few months. Our forced foray into working from home has challenged us to think creatively, master new tools and develop new work habits that may enhance our ability to work in more flexible ways.

Virtual Productivity & Intimacy

Many have been surprised to find that our virtual engagement has actually brought our people even closer together. We have learned how to conduct business via teleconference, as well as that it is possible to virtual meetings with a large amount of people that are both effective and creative in design. But what we could not have anticipated was the power these virtual meetings had to bring us closer than ever before. Many have noted that video conferencing has forced or, perhaps, allowed us to invite one another into our homes, introduce one another to our children and pets, and to the horror of some, show the world our natural hair color. We have met one another in new ways and on a deeper level. We have developed patience and grace as our colleagues offer brilliant ideas and solutions with children playing in their laps. We have discovered that the quick notes to see how someone on our team is doing are both powerful motivators and have the effect of a giant bear hug – which we may have been less inclined to have provided in the world before COVID-19. Our suspicion is that this deeper, richer connection among our colleagues is not something that we will be willing to let go as we return to “normal.”

Stronger for the “Bunker Experience”

Some months from now we will realize that we have survived something that is unlike any experience we have ever had as we will have been in the bunker together, sacrificing for the good of the whole. Brooks Gallagher, a clinical psychologist and retired principal at DHG, says it this way: “Overcoming adversity together becomes a powerful social glue that creates strong relationships and strengthens our collective resolve. The old saying of ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ is actually an accurate account of the social bonding that goes on within a group that faces a challenge together.”

Overcoming adversity together becomes a powerful social glue that creates strong relationships and strengthens our collective resolve.

This shared experience extends to our client relationships for we have been in this so-called bunker with them as well. The concept of trusted advisor takes on a whole new dimension when our clients remember how we were there for them as they too wrestled with the significant challenges caused by COVID-19. By providing support, solutions and the proverbial “shoulder” to lean on, we have, in many cases, changed the dynamic of the relationship. Not only will we have weathered the storm with our colleagues and peers, but we will have been in the trenches with our valued clients, and in doing so, we will have enhanced our value to them.

In our personal lives, many say that they have felt a seismic shift in their relationships. As one of our partners Chip Chambley so eloquently puts it, “I shared with a friend the other day that our kids are going to look back on this time and not remember that they didn’t have school, or that people were getting sick, but they are going to remember the time they had with their parents.” We are having dinner together, we are taking walks together, we are connecting with those we love most in ways that, for many of us, have taken a back seat to work or extracurricular activities or friends or…life as we knew it. We are being given an opportunity to spend time together, to pay attention to one another and love one another in ways that will have a lasting effect. One friend hosts a [virtual] formal dinner once a week for her family and asks that they dress for the occasion, another has a family power walk at the same time every day, another shoots a family video each evening showcasing the talent (or lack thereof as she laughingly puts it) of her kids. Virtual happy hours abound with family and friends in different locations. Many, with school age children, are becoming much more hands on with their children’s school work.”

Loneliness and Social Connection

This forced getting-to-know-you time has for many opened doors into a whole new world of family relationships, but this virtual environment is having a much different impact on those living alone. There are more people living alone today than ever before in our human history, and those who are sheltering in place alone are reporting that loneliness is a significant and overarching challenge. In the article “How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Own Toll” published in the New Yorker magazine, author Robin Wright states that 28 percent of households were singleperson in 2019. Additionally, DHG’s Inclusion and Diversity Director, Kevin Price, reminds us that it is not only those living alone who are lonely but sometimes those who are surrounded by people. Wright goes on to say that “science shows us that anxiety and isolation exact a physical toll on the brain’s circuitry. They increase the vulnerability to disease by triggering high blood pressure and heart rates, stress hormones and inflammation among people who might otherwise not get sick.” Wright reminds us that loneliness is not just a feeling: “It is a biological warning signal to seek out other human beings, much as hunger is a signal that leads a person to seek out food.” How we are seeking one another during this shelter in place world has been infused with creativity and invention. One of our senior managers has been sending “care packages” to her teammates each week that contain necessities like toilet paper or hand sanitizer, but also include hand-written notes of appreciation. Facetime, Skype, TEAMS and Zoom calls have replaced our daily in-person connections that are so vital to everyone but, perhaps especially, to those whose work-life connections are so important. The question on the table for all of us is how the importance we place on connections with others will be impacted by this prolonged period of isolation. It is quite possible that we will continue to need and want to find ways to support and engage with others in new and different ways.

It is hard to imagine a silver lining to this crisis amid the fears and anxiety associated with the myriad of changes thrust upon us. But time and time again, we realize that our greatest learnings, our quantum leaps forward in understanding, and our most amazing revelations come to us in the face of adversity. Experience has also taught us the power of optimism, the results of a “can do” attitude, and the comradery we experience through mutual sacrifice focused on a powerful vision. Time will tell, but it is quite possible that based on what we have learned during our battle with COVID-19, we will emerge stronger, smarter and more prepared to meet the challenges of another day.

Recognizing that “re-entry” will look different based on Industry or Location, some questions to consider are:

  1. What will the role of “what-if” planning” play in your organization?
  2. How might you harness the “nimble factor” to alleviate analysis paralysis?
  3. How might your leadership strategy be different post crisis?
  4. How might you continue to communicate in ways that build confidence and trust?
  5. Given the work from home experience, how might your view of flexibility change?
  6. How has your thinking about work life balance and the importance of family time changed?
  7. How might you leverage the virtual intimacy you experienced during this crisis?
  8. What dare you say is the better, newer normal? What have you learned or experienced that you don’t want to give up?


Jeff Outten
Director, Change Management
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