The advent of COVID-19 vaccines in late 2020 and early 2021 in the United States and other affluent nations gave us some—albeit premature and false—hope that we were successfully on the path to curbing the pandemic. Far from it, nine months into the year we find ourselves in an odd place of acceptance, that covid will be with us in some form or another, for a long time into the near future.
We were also quite fast to imagine going “back to normal” or even “back to better” and again, as new variants emerge and more information becomes available on the duration of immunity, we find ourselves having settled for a reality that we will live with uncertainty, risk, and disruption for a long time—possibly forever.
The fact that this was something we are just now coming to terms with is surprising to me. In my formal training as a forecaster and risk specialist, I’ve learned that living with risk and disruption is the norm. It behooves all of us to learn these behaviors that risk experts practice so that we can not only cope with the current and next emergency, but thrive in the “next normal”.
In this special edition—which concludes our popular “After the Pandemic” series we produced in 2020—we partnered with thought leaders and experts who are not just practicing crisis management, they are enabling transformational change in the personal and organizational realm. We asked them to reflect on the issues that have dominated our personal, professional, and public spaces. These are the themes we set out to cover.
The first set of essays is collected in this bookazine. The essays have become the foundation for the establishment of a new Diplomatic Courier Channel titled “The Next Normal” where we will continue to cover these themes over the next year and beyond.
The nature of trust is evolving in this era of pandemic. We are divided about science—even while being hopeful it will save the day. We are uncertain about what is true. Hesitant to put our faith in media or sacrifice some of our freedoms in service to the collective, public good. The speed and extent of the crisis have pulled back the veil to reveal significant fractures in our social systems. What has the pandemic revealed about government models for creating trust with and among citizens? What lessons can we learn from the evolution of trust in public life? How is activism shifting the currency of trust? How is trust in businesses and brands evolving? In NGOs and public health authorities?
How can we model practices of health and celebrate self-care in turbulent times? How can we make the skills of empathy more present for ourselves and our teams, and infuse them into the strategies propelling our projects? We had been conditioned through signals and explicit and implicit boundaries to divide work and home. What happens when those signals fade away? When our homes function as our family residences, our children’s schools, our offices, and our theaters for leisure and entertainment all in one? We need new markers for reestablishing boundaries. Without them, our distinct domains of work and home blur, potentially eroding our health and quality of life.
Beyond maintaining balance, we must find ways to stay emotionally connected. Human beings are inherently social. We crave touch and kinship. We prioritize travel and mobility. We find joy in being together. Emerging protocols will lead us to new forms of social interaction—and social etiquette. How will we make sense of, translate for others, and lead the new social behavior literacy? How will we instill intimacy while we are socially distant?
Now more than ever, the ability to come together as a team and adapt to unexpected challenges is essential to our long-term well-being, both as an organization and as individuals. Old buzzwords—agility, innovation, resilience—are taking on new resonance. As we step into this next phase, we will find it helpful to focus not on what we have lost, but on what we have learned; not on what we fear, but what we value. As parents, as families, as partners, as workers—and finally as an organization—we are being compelled to ask ourselves where our priorities lie and what is essential. Whatever your role, now is the time to streamline, to discard what holds you back, and to focus on what matters most. What old thinking must you toss? What new ideas should you embrace? How should you skill up?
Handshakes are no longer an international greeting. Flights are grounded. A plexiglass screen separates friends at bars. The “new normal” feels a bit like a scene out of one of the countless post-apocalyptic science fiction films, portraying a future in which distance is a way of life. We have adopted new rituals for the short term, some of which likely will become installed in the sociological protocol permanently. How will we reboot basic daily practices we take for granted? How does information flow through informal channels, and how do colleagues stay socially connected without it feeling artificial? How do we retain in isolation all that context, history, and information that used to be distributed in our hallways and through socialization heartbeats?
Bend Time; Launch Leaders
Sunday is the new Tuesday, 10 a.m. is the new lunchtime, and we are all drowning in the 84-hour workweek. Time feels like one of the most affected elements of our working culture in the new normal. What are the best practices to manage time in a remote work model? New philosophies are emerging: What are our new thoughts on “presenteeism” as the practice of being there merely for the sake of being there? How can we—as individuals and within the microcultures of teams and departments—make more explicit a philosophy of labor in the new normal? If we aren’t intentional about it, we will mix our signals, conflate rituals, and accidentally drive ourselves into an unhealthy space—simply because we didn’t have a plan.
Taking the Long View
The pandemic has made it harder to ignore fractures in society: fragile support systems for those most at risk, systemic racism and gender bias as preexisting conditions, under-resourced platforms for public health, interconnected economic houses of cards, and a perceived absence of leadership at national and international levels. These second-tier storylines during the pandemic—and the hopes people have to change their narrative arcs—have led many to call this moment in history the “great reset.” How will we be affected by this reset? Where do opportunities lie for us to align our business goals, our contributions to the evolving narrative? How will we scenario plan, develop simulations, and identify risks and transformation accelerators? What would a “great reset” war room look like as a kind of internal, venture-oriented laboratory for leaning into what comes next?
Prioritize the Why
The speed of the arrival of a new normal has quickly snapped to grid a language of priorities. As the global economy falls into recession, cuts, reductions, and resource restrictions follow. Regulations regarding what is “essential” and “nonessential” govern how nations manage in times of crisis. But this dichotomy also helps businesses realign against what is “business critical” and what is not. A seemingly easy exercise of drawing up lists can become deceptively difficult if the purpose of the business is unclear.
Be Locally Driven
Grounded travel, closed borders, quarantine policies, disrupted supply chains, fear, and mistrust are all shaping a more localized normal. How might this lay the foundational landscape for managing communication moving forward? Can we draw from other metaphors for reorganizing/relocating (e.g., the “forward operating site” in military operations or diplomacy)?
From Resilience to Transformation
Business as usual is no longer viable and leaders know it. But change is hard to do. In siloes, individuals and entire industries are trying to solve some of the most pressing challenges for our society. But what can the education sector learn from healthcare? How is cross-industry collaboration creating strange but viable solutions? The future is rational only in hindsight and it will be determined by the convergence of collaboration and knowledge. What ideas are being born now and how can we help them to arrive well? Conversely, what is decaying and how can we help it leave well?
Join us in this multi-media exploration of what transformation will really look like post-pandemic and beyond.