When We Can’t Go Back to Normal, Go Back To Business Basics 

Business persons with protective masks meet in a co-working area


In their book Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0 – updated and re-released in December 2020, Jim Collins and Bill Lazier quote history professor Edward T. O’Donnell, who said “History is the study of surprises,” before opining themselves that “If the first two decades of the 21st century have taught us anything, it’s that uncertainty is chronic; instability is permanent; disruption is common; and we can neither predict nor govern events. There will be no ‘new normal’; there will only be a continuous series of ‘not normal’ episodes, defying prediction and unforeseen by most of us until they happen.”

If they’re correct, then not only is the notion of a “return to normal” a fantasy, but so is the idea of a “new normal.” That means that as we continue into 2021, we have to be prepared for anything at home and at work. 

Most employers successfully adapted during the early days of COVID as they scrambled to ensure employee safety, stability and security. That meant distributing hand sanitizer and masks, limiting meeting room capacities, closing the lunchroom, adding Plexiglas barriers and implementing new remote working arrangements that simultaneously tested our technological prowess and commitment to work-life balance. Businesses that responded slowly or half-heartedly lost trust, confidence and probably some talented employees. On the other hand, those who managed 2020 well enjoyed better connections to their employees, more loyalty, better productivity and maybe even bigger revenues. 

As we mark the one year anniversary of COVID’s arrival in the U.S., there’s lots of uncertainty, but here are a few solid time-tested strategies that can help businesses navigate the next phase of the pandemic:

Make health and wellbeing a focal point.

COVID is first a biological phenomenon that has raised awareness about personal hygiene and underlying health conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and obesity that multiply one’s risk for serious illness. We’ve also listened to stories about otherwise healthy 30-somethings who wound up on ventilators and by now, we all know multiple people who have died from COVID.  Employers should continue to encourage COVID testing, provide evidence-based information about vaccines, educate staff about their health benefits and promote wellness activities. Discounts at local gyms and yoga studios, healthy diet and cooking webinars, properly distanced outdoor walks and hikes all make a difference. 

Understand that mental health is a key part of wellbeing.

Federal surveys have found that more than 40 percent of Americans are reporting an adverse mental health or behavioral health condition – typically anxiety or depression – that’s impacting their daily lives.  More than 13 percent say they have started or increased their use of drugs or alcohol to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19 and a whopping 31 percent of those caring for another adult – usually an elderly parent – told interviewers they had “seriously considered” suicide in the last 30 days.

Encourage your staff to take mental health days off without shame. Promote the use of meditation apps and online therapy services, along with local nonprofit counseling centers and support groups. If your company doesn’t have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems, check out HIA member National EAP.

Families come first.

Overwhelmed parents – especially those who are single or have kids with special needs – are being forced to choose between their children, their jobs and their own wellbeing as they juggle remote learning and a persistent lack of childcare.  A 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 35 percent of surveyed mothers said back-to-school stress/worry had a “major” impact on their mental health and Motherly’s 2020 State of Motherhood Survey found that 89 percent of mothers surveyed said they didn’t feel society sufficiently supports moms. The COVID-19 pandemic is making moms feel even worse, and the biggest source of stress among working moms, not surprisingly, is inadequate childcare. 

Employers should speak out about the need for universal Pre-K, advocate for meaningful child care alternatives, and perhaps offer subsidies. At the very least, offer flexibility and meaningful accommodations; formal and informal programs for paid, partially paid and unpaid leave; and maintain a thoughtful dialogue about strategies for reconciling work and family demands.

Promote workplace effectiveness.

Eliminate unnecessary Zoom meetings, cap the length of conference calls, set clear expectations for email and texting and create guidelines for when the workday formally begins and ends. Figure out who truly needs to work in a traditional office setting, who can continue to work remotely, and consider a hybrid model for virtually everyone. Ask employees what they prefer and how they work best. If you’re forcing staff back into an office environment solely to keep better tabs on what they’re doing, there’s a bigger problem.  For business owners, leaders and managers looking for ways to boost morale, achieve lasting success, and win a little bit of peace in the midst of chaos, uncertainty and disruption, the charge is clear: continue to be present, empathetic, decisive, communicative and fully transparent. Then practice what you preach and we’ll all emerge healthier, stronger and better positioned for whatever comes next.

This article first appeared in the Hauppauge Reporter