Part VIII: The new normal: a culture of consideration and listening

It’s been a while since I made a contribution to the “Inclusive Society”. I was not aware the weeks had passed so quickly. Suddenly Mother’s Day, and even Father’s Day, had passed, and it’s already nearly time to go on our summer holiday.

Working from home is still the norm at the moment, and may remain so forever. But people are social beings aren’t they? Can we handle that? How do we ensure the mental challenges posed in the post-COVID-19 era are not more profound than the challenges we faced when the virus gripped society completely? At the time, we were obliged to stay home en masse?

Something I am hearing more and more often is: “It’s safe at home, I’m afraid to go out into the world again, literally and figuratively.” We seem to have arrived at a “a culture of reflection”. And so now, if we want to do something that was “taken away” by the measures that previously did not require any thought and was considered normal, we are wondering if we will ever do the activity again. Most people’s consciousness is growing. We are coordinating with ourselves more often and more consciously: “Do we want to go to a restaurant, or would we prefer to eat at home? Shall we meet up with friends or not? Shall we go to the office to work today, or are we better off working from home?” I must admit that I have caught myself asking such questions as well.

Like you, I have no idea what the future holds. But right now, my main concern is what we can do to make people feel like they’re part of a team, without having to gather in an office.

Corona-proof redesign 

A few weeks ago, work life in the office started again, quietly. Many people returned to work outside the home, although working from home is still the norm and may remain so forever. In recent weeks, we have been working on the corona-proof design of our workspaces.

How can we transform workplaces into meeting rooms as efficiently as possible, and then again into workspaces? Should we think about “low”, “medium” and “high focus” workplaces? And can that “high focus” workplace be at home, when the children are at school or at the nursery? And who should come to the office, and when? Do we really have to think about a reservation system? Maybe we should even consider a reward for those who have the discipline to work from home? 

Mental health problems are one of the most common reasons people have a hard time at work. Because of COVID-19, the fear of getting sick at work may become another reason why people don’t like coming to the office. 

In recent years, we switched from an industrial era to a thinking economy. And the results of this lead to different types of accidents at work. Today’s “safety glasses” and “gloves” are different. They revolve around defining softer values that are just as important but more difficult to pin down. So today, more than ever, we need a well-thought-out working environment. A place that can make us feel safe. A place where we can be happy, creative and productive.

Creating a sense of togetherness, yet safely separated – this is what we want to work hard at. A place where everything is possible. From writing thick reports, to leading creative brainstorming sessions. A warm, friendly and safe environment where everyone feels at home. A place where we can build long, lasting connections with clients and colleagues who are passionate about sharing knowledge, ideas, connections and skills. In short, a home base for the collective group of talented professionals that we become when we work together.

It very quickly became clear that if we comply with all the regulations, we will have less than half the workplaces we had before COVID-19. So a mindshift was required. In any case, telework will remain the norm until there is a vaccine, and this may be even forever.

From now on, we all have to be very conscious about working and workplaces in the office. Together with Ann from Facilities, Katrien from Slingshot and interior architects, we have thought long and hard. Transforming the current workspace into a hip place where no one feels excluded has been quite a challenge. But we did it. 

Positive experiences

Getting to one third of the workplaces without any employees feeling excluded was quite a challenge. 

It all works with video calls and digital tools. But COVID-19 taught us that we need social contact as humans, and that we usually use our work as a social network. Do we benefit from the fact that working from home is becoming the norm? Do we get happier or unhappier working from home? And is personal happiness the responsibility of the employer? Or is the employee responsible for creating a good framework without ignoring the rules of “higher-ups”?

We asked Divirsiti staff about what COVID-19 has meant to them. The survey was built around the employee’s own story. Employees tell us what effect COVID-19 and the related measures have had on them. Additional questions were asked to glean more details and to find out more about how the employees were feeling. Clear trends emerged. 

Based on the stories that have been filled in so far, it appears that more than half of the employees experience the period as positive. They found it especially soothing to not be stuck in traffic so often, and to be able to work more productively in their own environment. You can read some of the quotes yourself below.

  • I often get more done in a day because I suffer fewer disturbances and can focus more.
  • For me, the essence of work ethic and energy is the potential to do things that go beyond the everyday, to create change. Stable anchoring to a location, hierarchy; specifically, I have one less task.
  • The new normal? Working from home is perfectly workable for us, and thanks to the regular informal team meetings, I see my Cronos colleagues even more than usual.
  • Thanks to Corona I have my freedom back. I used to be stuck in traffic for an hour and a half to get to a customer, I can now do the same work without losing that time. Do I want to pop to the shops, or work in the sun? No problem. 
  • But now the end is drawing closer, and the pressure is slowly increasing again. The lessons learned from the past few months are already starting to be forgotten.
  • At the moment we are obliged to work from home. I really enjoy the luxurious and relaxed atmosphere. And you can do more because you have fewer meetings. And those you attend are more to the point. 
  • In addition to the “crisis” aspects, the COVID-19 period confirms what you already knew. You don’t have to do office hours every day for 8 hours, or “stress test” yourself in traffic before and after to deliver output. Planning coupled with flexibility delivers results, which can be perfectly shared remotely. Much needed contact with “live” colleagues feels like “payoff” instead of routine. My relationship wins, my company wins, I win, everyone wins… if we do it right. As a society, we should get a collective “red card” if we return to the old ways without making some changes: pollution of time, quality of life and environment, with little “return” and reason behind the habit. I feel my company as a technology company can play an exemplary role in the future. The “old normal” offered a lot of guidance, but I am 100% ready for version 2.0, with common sense.

Listening is key

Another clear trend is that many of us find it a chore to get everything organised, especially when schools and nurseries were still closed. But one of the main challenges during this period was the lack of informal contacts with colleagues. Many feel isolated.

I think that makes listening to each other even more important. I even think we should really focus on a “listening culture”. By that I mean sincere listening. We should take the time in the office to listen to each other. Ask how your colleague is doing and listen to their answer. Listen to a colleague with the intention of learning something about them. 

Listening carefully is one of the ingredients of our success as humanity. We can only achieve sustainable progress in society if we listen to each other sincerely. After all, listening ensures a connection is created. 

Science, technology and creativity are based on connections, and therefore on listening to each other. You develop good products by listening to your customer. You really don’t develop top teams by organising the coolest activities, but by listening closely to each other. Those strange activities during team building are no more than an icebreaker, a preliminary process to gain the confidence that someone can entrust something to you.

If we don’t listen to each other, things won’t work out. So we have to organise ourselves so we can keep listening to each other. COVID-19 and its consequences should not be an excuse for not doing that any more. It should just be an impetus to better support the “listening culture”.

Quality time

We seem more connected via apps and social media than ever during this period. They are less messy than real life. We can deliberately delete our imperfections and the difficulties of life. Digitally our lives seem perfect, but at the same time very clean. By completely switching to digital, we lose the nuances and richness of real human contact. You may feel lost, or that you don’t feel like doing anything, maybe even lonely. This is precisely where the challenge lies with telework becoming the norm. 

We must be vigilant and ensure colleagues can still really listen to each other. Because you can listen to the other person’s small talk, but people really start to feel better through connection. Connecting person to person, and not head to head, that is important. The only way to do that is to allow vulnerability from both sides. And the best way to do that is still when we are physically together. So more than ever we have to try to do this more.

Maybe we will find ourselves developing a culture in which our qualitative presence is not our quantitative presence. COVID-19 and its consequences may force us to treat each other differently and to connect in a different way. Maybe really listening is the engine. Maybe we should all think about how to install a culture like that. How can we make real human contact with each other more than before COVID-19? Real listening is like a muscle: if you don’t train it, it gets weaker. Where the working conditions allow a focus on more qualitative listening to the other person, for most it is a true mind shift. Maya Angelou puts it as follows: 

“People will quickly forget what you say, and maybe even what you do, but they will never forget how you make them feel. Listening carefully shows genuine attention, it can give a fantastic feeling.”

On the path to an inclusive society, I think this is a very poignant quote. ☺

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