“To study the abnormal is the best way of understanding the normal.”

— William James

“My new normal is to continually get used to new normals.”

— Unknown

“Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.”

— Eckhart Tolle

“If transition isn’t painful then you aren’t making progress.”

— Anonymous

“Different is the new normal.”

— James Durbin, Author

“The new normal will be about work-life integration more than work-life balance.”

— Shilpa Vaid, Prione Group

“The “new normal” isn’t necessarily a business world without working in an office; it’s just a world where we focus on work rather than office space.”

— Bhavin Turakhia, Flock

“Technology now allows people to connect anytime, anywhere, to anyone in the world, from almost any device. This is dramatically changing the way people work, facilitating 24/7 collaboration with colleagues who are dispersed across time zones, countries, and continents.”

— Michael Dell

With a long-overdue sigh of relief, many people seem to be convinced that COVID has been conquered and that the past good times are back. Vacation spots are filling up quickly and new travel plans are even generating gasoline shortages.

More than a few major employers are calling most staff back to the office. Restaurants and bars, among many places, are once again packed. Apart from some residual nuisances, the nasty recent past is gone at long last.

As they say in France – wanna bet?

Changes in almost everything since early 2020 are massive and in many cases, virtually permanent. We are in fact far along into a very new and different world.

It will not be a “new normal” or time of stability as many are hoping for and expecting. We are in a time of continuous change, not stability. How long will it last? Nobody knows.

Judging from the magnitude of changes underway, duration is likely to be quite a while. Maybe even a very long while.

The list of major changes is large and still growing

This might be a good point to look at a few of these major changes:

  1. Working from anywhere
    Remote (from the office) work has exploded, driven by a growing array of amazing technologies and especially the internet. Teams can collaborate from worldwide locations, making working location very much a personal choice in many cases. Hybrid work schedules and offering location flexibility as a job perk are here for good. Huge central offices are dinosaurs and coworking remote office arrangements are becoming common.

  2. An increasingly gig economy
    The gig economy – “gig” being on-demand, short-term, flexible working arrangements – is enabled by digital platforms that link independent workers with customers for much of what they do. It is not new, as the nice graphic by McKinsey from 2016 shows (below), but it has grown hugely as the result of COVID-driven lockdowns and layoffs. Mastercard projects 17% annual growth in global gig-economy transactions, reaching nearly $500 billion by 2023. Gig is big.
Gig is big

3. Automation (with AI) of repetitive, low-skill activities
This process has been underway for decades but COVID responses have accelerated it hugely. Technological advances, especially those where artificial intelligence can add major leverage, are pushing even smaller businesses like food service deeply into automation. Investments here are large, widespread, and long-term. Displaced workers are being retrained into jobs where people-skills are essential.

4. Online shopping and delivery are decimating stores
Amazon led the way in this fundamental buying transition but it is being adopted by almost every product-selling firm. Stores are being forced into new service-focused roles and valued customer experiences where online interactions are still weak. This has created many enormous delivery businesses around food, groceries, and online-purchased products. Pizza-maker Domino’s is even testing delivery by self-driving vehicles while Amazon Prime Air and others are testing delivery using drone aerial vehicles for a broad range of products. Consumer buying behavior is changing dramatically and permanently.

5. Decentralization of businesses
Remote working is driving many highly-centralized businesses to adopt location diversity. Cost savings can be major and many employees are shifting to commute-less, lower-cost residential cities and towns. The NJ (New Jersey) Buzz Blog reported that: “COVID-19’s most significant long-term impact may be the transformation of how and where employees work. A survey of global real estate executives conducted by CBRE Research regarding the pandemic’s impact on office space found:

  • 70 percent of those polled see at least a portion of their staff working remotely, and 61 percent could operate in a hybrid model of working remotely and in-office.
  • Only 10 percent of those polled expected there to be no remote work policy in place down the road.
  • When comparing pre- and post-COVID opinions on the role of employees in choosing where they work, stances changed to be more likely to empower employees to choose between a remote, in-office, or hybrid work schedule.
  • 73 percent expect flexible workspaces to be part of their company’s real estate strategy.
  • Most of those surveyed expected slight (41 percent of responses) or no change (22 percent) in the importance of still having a physical office.
  • In a world where decentralization of headquarters to a mix of satellite, project, and flex-space offices is being forecasted, the increased flexibility of building in New Jersey and reduced real estate costs are advantages. Decentralization of office space enables companies to take full advantage of their proximity to the New York City and Philadelphia markets while reducing overhead.”

6. Reduced business travel
Much business travel in past was driven by meetings, conferences, and conventions as well as visits to customers and suppliers. COVID shifted much of this travel to virtual online interactions. The Wall Street Journal estimates that “Between 19% and 36% of all business trips could disappear, given efficiencies developed during the lockdown …” and notes that business travelers are by far the most profitable. CNBC reported that “Bill Gates says more than 50% of business travel will disappear in post-coronavirus world.”.

7. Shifting low-skill workers to people-focused service work
Automation and AI are rapidly obsoleting many low-skill, repetitive jobs. Resulting job losses will become a major problem as unemployment benefits run out and costly government subsidies disappear. Retraining will be vital to make these workers able to fill people-focused jobs where human interactions are still vital and valuable.

8. Increased importance of creative work
High-skill workers are also being displaced by automation and AI. These people however can more readily shift to activities where creativity and innovation are central. Automation and AI are often ineffective for, and/or inapplicable to, such work.

9. Lockdowns on-off seem likely to continue
COVID-driven lockdowns seem to have become a major part of government practices globally because of their proven effectiveness in changing behavior. It is hard to see those in power letting go of lockdowns except over the longer-term.

10. The end of cash?
Digital currencies in the form of cryptocurrency, virtual currency, and central bank digital currency are being pushed hard lately as a replacement for physical cash. These are facilitated by the huge volume of digital transactions using debit/credit cards, internet banking, mobile wallets, digital payment apps, Unified Payments Interface (UPI) service, Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), bank prepaid cards, mobile banking, etc. Cash is becoming an endangered species in many countries.

11. Significant price inflation seems inevitable
Shortages of various kinds created by lockdowns, supply chain disruptions, changes in demand, and a myriad of other factors like unemployment support assistance have combined to produce enormous increases in the money supply. Almost everywhere. More money chasing fewer goods is a formula for price inflation. Perhaps not hyperinflation as in pre-war Germany or in recent Venezuela but enough to generate large economic distortions.

12. Business localization to insulate from disruptions
Economic and regulatory disruptions, among many others, are making life very difficult and uncertain for highly-centralized businesses. Efficiencies from centralization seem likely to be offset increasingly by country-specific changes and situations.

You get the idea. There are so many additional changes taking place that this story really requires a fat book to cover. Which will become instantly outdated.

What next? VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous)

VUCA describes our new, not-normal world. What is “VUCA”? Wikipedia has this overview:

“VUCA is an acronym – first used in 1987, drawing on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus – to describe or to reflect on the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions and situations. The U.S. Army War College introduced the concept of VUCA to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous multilateral world perceived as resulting from the end of the Cold War. More frequent use and discussion of the term “VUCA” began from 2002 and derives from this acronym from military education. It has subsequently taken root in emerging ideas in strategic leadership that apply in a wide range of organizations, from for-profit corporations to education.”

“The deeper meaning of each element of VUCA serves to enhance the strategic significance of VUCA foresight and insight as well as the behaviour of groups and individuals in organizations. It discusses systemic failures and behavioural failures, which are characteristic of organisational failure.

V = Volatility: the nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.

U = Uncertainty: the lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.

C = Complexity: the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues, no cause-and-effect chain and confusion that surrounds organization.

A = Ambiguity: the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.”

Kind of a snarly term but it seems to accurately reflect both where we are now and what our likely future may be.

The VUCA matrix below, which I recall first seeing in the Harvard Business Review (2014), offers a concise overview of a VUCA world. This as you may observe is the antithesis of a stable, old-normal world that seems to have gone forever. Human-critter-wise at least.

We have entered a very different world

I have to believe that this epochal transition has actually been underway for quite some time. My guess is for at least a century, and perhaps even dating back to the Industrial Revolution that began around 1760. Various wars and other inconveniences kept things moving along nicely for over two hundred years but it was COVID days that really put the pedal to the metal.

This period pretty much coincides with the rise and perhaps-fall of the American Empire. Sir John Glubb in his “The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival” (1976) analyzed the 4,000-year history of empires and concluded that their average lifespan, especially in the last millennium, was about 250 years. Maybe we are about due for our turn at collapse?

Maybe not, since the current VUCA-world is global, not empire-constrained.

Our real “new normal” is VUCA change

Beware of the normalcy bias

Normalcy bias, or normality bias, is a cognitive bias which leads people to disbelieve or minimize threat warnings. Consequently, individuals underestimate the likelihood of a disaster, when it might affect them, and its potential adverse effects.

This caution extends well beyond just the threat of disasters, as our recent COVID days have amply illustrated. Businesses eager to get back to “normal” may be falling into a serious trap:

As companies rush to reopen, many are falling into the trap of ‘getting back to normal.’ They don’t realize we’re heading into an era with waves of restrictions due to spikes in Covid-19 cases. Several states that opened early have now reimposed some restrictions, showing that … we may face rolling shutdowns, and therefore need to focus much more on virtual interactions.”

“To survive and thrive in this new abnormal and avoid the trap of normalcy bias, leaders must understand the parallels between what’s going on now and what happened at the pandemic’s start.”

“The normalcy bias is one of over 100 mental blind spots that cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists … call cognitive biases.”

Inc magazine wrote about a major disaster for Boeing resulting from a normalcy bias: “How Normalcy Led Boeing Into Disaster: Overlooking the influence of cognitive biases in business can cause your company’s downfall.”:

The new normal: These surface-level issues had a deeper cause. Ironically, the transformation of the airline industry in recent decades to make airplanes much safer and accidents incredibly rare is key to understanding Boeing’s plight.”

“Boeing’s leadership suffered from what cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists know as the normalcy bias. This dangerous judgment error causes our brains to assume things will keep going as they have been–normally. As a result, we drastically underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster occurring and the impact if it does.”

“Boeing’s 737 Max disaster is a classic case of normalcy bias. The company’s leadership felt utter confidence in the safety record of its planes produced in recent decades–deservedly so, according to crash statistics. From their perspective, it would be impossible to imagine that the 737 Max would be less safe than its other recent-model airplanes. They saw the FAA certification process as simply another bureaucratic hassle getting in the way of competing with Airbus, as opposed to ensuring safety.”

“Think only big companies are prone to this mindset? Think again. Normalcy bias is a significant factor behind bubbles: in stocks, housing prices, loans and other areas. It’s as though we’re incapable of remembering the previous bubble, even if it occurred only a few years ago.”

Changes occurring today are anything but “normal”

We cannot ever return to “normal” (aka the past) because the changes experienced so far are huge and their impacts, broad and long-lasting. Worse yet, the period of change seems certain to be lengthy. Our new normal is continuous major change.

These changes and many more are likely to continue for the unforeseeable future. COVID is of course resurfacing for reasons, as are more lockdowns for other reasons and science. Some are even promising that COVID will be with us forever, if not longer.

People will adapt as always. Some adaptations will be dysfunctional; others will be short-lived. Some will take hold permanently – such as remote working and office decentralization. Cities are almost certain to change dramatically over a longer time frame as their former reasons for existence slowly disappear.

Bottom line:

Not a chance of going “back to normal”. We are far past the point of no return. Our future, characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, is here to stay for a long while. The real danger today for leaders and managers is not recognizing and accepting this new state of the world – a normalcy bias.

Psychology Today offers a personal view of what “normalcy” means to real people:

“One of the most relevant psychological biases is called the normalcy bias. This bias refers to our tendency to expect that things will continue to occur in the future the way they have typically occurred in the past (to continue to be ‘normal’), which can lead us to underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster occurring and how bad the disaster is when it does occur. And apparently, I am among the 70 percent or so people thought to fall prey to this bias during a disaster . Even as I write about this bias, I can feel it playing in my mind. I feel myself thinking that yes, things are strange right now, but this is just temporary. It can’t really keep getting worse, right? I have to keep reminding myself that my daughter’s school is closed for a month because that is certainly not part of my normal life. The world’s reaction to the novel coronavirus has made it clear that this is not a normal situation, but I must remind myself of it constantly to fight against what, in my mind, feels like a brief blip in our typical way of doing things.”

The ”new normal” appears to be constantly renewed rather than concluding in an extended state of stability, as Wikipedia (inadvertently I think) observes:

“A new normal is a state to which an economy, society, etc. settles following a crisis, when this differs from the situation that prevailed prior to the start of the crisis. The term has been employed in relation to World War I, financial crisis of 2007-2008, September 11 attacks, the aftermath of the 2008–2012 global recession, the COVID-19 pandemic and other events.”

For a very broad (and lengthy) outlook of the scary, highly-abnormal “new normal” we seem to be facing, check out this article by the Pew Research Center: “Experts Say the ‘New Normal’ in 2025 Will Be Far More Tech-Driven, Presenting More Big Challenges”:

“When pandemics sweep through societies, they upend critical structures, such as health systems and medical treatments, economic life, socioeconomic class structures and race relations, fundamental institutional arrangements, communities and everyday family life. A new canvassing of experts in technology, communications and social change by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center finds that many expect similar impacts to emerge from the COVID-19 outbreak.”

“Asked to consider what life will be like in 2025 in the wake of the outbreak of the global pandemic and other crises in 2020, some 915 innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists responded. Their broad and nearly universal view is that people’s relationship with technology will deepen as larger segments of the population come to rely more on digital connections for work, education, health care, daily commercial transactions and essential social interactions. A number describe this as a “tele-everything” world.”

“Notable shares of these respondents foresee significant change that will:

> worsen economic inequality as those who are highly connected and the tech-savvy pull further ahead of those who have less access to digital tools and less training or aptitude for exploiting them and as technological change eliminates some jobs;

> enhance the power of big technology firms as they exploit their market advantages and mechanisms such as artificial intelligence (AI) in ways that seem likely to further erode the privacy and autonomy of their users;

> multiply the spread of misinformation as authoritarians and polarized populations wage warring information campaigns with their foes. Many respondents said their deepest worry is over the seemingly unstoppable manipulation of public perception, emotion and action via online disinformation – lies and hate speech deliberately weaponized in order to propagate destructive biases and fears. They worry about significant damage to social stability and cohesion and the reduced likelihood of rational deliberation and evidence-based policymaking.”

“At the same time, a portion of these experts express hope that changes spawned by the pandemic will make things better for significant portions of the population because of changes that:”

> inaugurate new reforms aimed at racial justice and social equity as critiques of current economic arrangements – and capitalism itself – gain support and policymaker attention;

> enhance the quality of life for many families and workers as more flexible-workplace arrangements become permanent and communities adjust to them;  

> produce technology enhancements in virtual and augmented reality and AI that allow people to live smarter, safer and more productive lives, enabled in many cases by “smart systems” in such key areas as health care, education and community living.”

“These six themes were commonly expressed by these experts in their responses to a question that asked them to consider the changes that were set in motion in 2020 by the COVID-19 outbreak and describe what the “new normal” might look like in 2025.”