The professional realm has arrived at quite a unique moment in history. A massive, collective shift has left reshaped versions of daily life and human culture in its wake, and no industry has been left untouched. While the tumult has created countless new obstacles, it’s illuminated just as many pivotal opportunities. The working world—and nearly every facet of life—is being reprogrammed, and this era of change has also given individuals a rare chance to rewrite the code themselves.
From rethinking how we source ideas to fostering a new kind of leadership, building a better New Normal will take an entire remodel of the workplace.
What's Past: The Problems with Work
In 2018, only 3% of the American workforce was fully remote. On-site, in-person work was the default, and remote workers often felt overlooked, forgotten, or excluded from key discussions and decisions. In fact, over half of the demographic reported being excluded from meetings and missing out on important information only because they were not physically present.
On-site work has always had its share of pitfalls, as well. Biases, systemic racism, and sexism created barriers to entry—to executive-, management-, and even entry-level roles—for non-male, non-white candidates, regardless of their merit. Additionally, most companies were not cognizant when it came to supporting workers who dealt with obstacles that toe the line between personal and professional, such as mental health struggles, social anxiety, or families to care for at home.
One of the main benefits of the physical workplace was the opportunity for group work, like collaboration, group brainstorms, and impromptu discussions with coworkers. However, group settings—meetings, in particular—was also one of the biggest drawbacks, as they illuminated and exacerbated the aforementioned problems.
“It was difficult to have substantial discussions, especially for the women in the room, including myself," said a manager at one of the biggest tech giants in Silicon Valley, referring to in-person meetings with her team. “Not only were we being interrupted and talked over, but some people were simply more vocal about how we should make decisions and allocate resources. Those people largely influenced the outcomes of these meetings, even when their contributions didn’t reflect the consensus of the group.”
And this employee isn’t alone in her struggle: When McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org surveyed 68,000 employees for its 2019 Women in the Workplace report, 50% of the surveyed women had experienced being interrupted or spoken over, and 38% had had others take credit for their ideas.
"In a time where diversity and inclusion, in all it's forms, has never been more important, many organizations have, thankfully, crossed the first hurdle—believing in the why. What happens next is sometimes the hardest part—knowing the how."
— Justin Angsuwat, CPO and SVP of People at Thumbtack
Of course, we don’t live the same lives we did in 2018 or 2019. This is 2020, a physically-distanced, remote-first, post-COVID (well, post-discovery-of-COVID) world. And the way we work has changed drastically: Since the onset of COVID-19, more than 60% of employed individuals work primarily remotely. That’s a far cry from the 3% two years ago, and when an entire facet of life changes so dramatically so quickly, we have no choice but to evolve.
What's Now: Remote First, Engagement Last
Back in March, companies worldwide took the obvious, necessary first step into the New Normal: creating remote-first offices. And in an effort to replace the energy, camaraderie, and synchrony of in-person office culture, the number of virtual meetings has skyrocketed.
“We can’t just pop our heads into each other’s offices anymore,” the tech manager said. “Now, every tiny detail is a meeting, which is quite overwhelming.”
According to Clockwise, remote workers are spending 29% more time in team meetings and 24% more time in one-on-one meetings since COVID hit. This new habit of constant virtual meetings has not only ushered in a new set of problems—such as Zoom fatigue and an essentially non-existent line between work life and personal life—but has also compounded on the deep-seated problems that plagued traditional meetings.
A study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University tells us that in a typical eight-person group, three people—usually extroverts in more senior positions—do 70% of the talking, and early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation. Additionally, public, collaborative forums often result in production blocking and evaluation apprehension, leading to significantly reduced productivity due to harmful group dynamics like groupthink, cognitive bias, and fear of repercussions in response to sharing an unpopular or unusual piece of feedback. These conventions didn’t disappear when meetings moved online, they just became more exhausting.
The professional values of the Old Normal tell us that boldness, loudness, and seniority equate merit and truth. But when everyone has a professional background and past experiences that can be leveraged to solve problems—and when 50% of people are introverts—how can that truly be the case?
What's Next: Insight Mobility and Enlightened Leadership
We’ve outlined some of the most harmful practices in the workplace—and there are several more to mention, including toxic productivity, the penalization of working mothers, and the true depths of systemic inequality. Oftentimes, too, what makes these standards so insidious is their facade of normalcy, which allows them to endure for decades unchecked. In the past few years, however, some companies are beginning to understand and recognize these problems, which is the first step toward solving them.
“In a time where diversity and inclusion, in all its forms, has never been more important, many organizations have, thankfully, crossed the first hurdle—believing in the why,” explained Justin Angsuwat, Chief People Officer and SVP of People at Thumbtack. “What happens next is sometimes the hardest part—knowing the how.”
The "how" is called Insight Mobility.
Insight Mobility is a new approach to work, but it addresses many of its longest-standing problems. It refers to the concept of making space for insights to arise from anywhere—and anyone—in a company by removing structural barriers like seniority, group dynamics, and implicit bias in collaborative settings. Insight Mobility allows ideas to move freely through organizational strata, not based on where they came from, but on their merit. It has the power to give employees, regardless of seniority, a protected space to give feedback, voice opinions, and share ideas, while allowing companies to prioritize both psychological safety and innovation.
Not only implementing but also prioritizing Insight Mobility is key to building a better New Normal, especially as meeting frequency is high and morale is low. Companies must incorporate it into both their practical workflows and their conceptual values, and they’ll need new tools, policies, and other resources to facilitate its integration.
But these external aids alone can’t transform one company’s culture, let alone shape the New Normal for the entire professional realm. Insight Mobility resources can only unlock a company’s full potential when they are championed by certain kinds of people, who we call enlightened leaders.
Enlightened leaders believe the key to a company’s success is the creation of a truly inclusive culture. They make space for diverse perspectives, because they know they’ll make better, more informed decisions when they have everyone's feedback and ideas. And they allow people to try new things and fail, because fear of failure will kill all innovation, and eventually, their companies.
Of course, seeing enlightened leadership in every company is ideal, and the Ideal is inherently separate from the Normal. Nothing will ever be perfect in the professional world, but we can’t unsee what we’ve seen, and we can’t unlearn what we’ve learned. We can either address the deeply rooted, systemic problems—the staunchest barriers to creating a widespread work culture of productivity, innovation, inclusivity, and passion—or we can put our precious energy into forcing the workplace to go “back to normal.”
If we are to build a better Normal, companies must reset their priorities and expectations, constantly pursue the best ideas that will help them thrive in changing markets and a changing world, and see their employees as people with full lives, unique and valuable experiences, and, most importantly, new ideas.