The Next Normal: There’s No Going Back

In March 2020, much of the office-world went virtual. Even while we were terrified and clear that the already existing disparities in our community would be exasperated, there was also a brief window where we felt like we had more control of our most precious resource: time. 

 As a consultant, I experienced the privilege of the new, Zoom, workplace. I could meet with one client until 3:59pm and start my next call at 4pm. There was no commute from one client’s office to the next. My daughter, who became waitlisted due to reduced classroom numbers in her Kids Day Out program, could sit on the couch next to me while I held a meeting. My employer, Gladiator Consulting, had the opportunity to grow from a local boutique firm to one with international reach– by presenting in Europe without having to leave our home-offices. The obstacles that would have formerly inhibited a women/parent-led consultancy to travel internationally, those obstacles that often hindered the exchange of knowledge, were diminished. We held fundraising “events” virtually and our clients didn’t have to rent pricey venues, except maybe a Zoom upgrade here and there to allow for more virtual participants. 

This was very different from my “before-times.”

Before I worked in the nonprofit sector– of which more than half of my tenure here has been remote– I was a bartender. I danced around my colleagues in a fast-paced environment, shouting our own language of “behind!” and “corner!” and “86!” as we served the myriads of college-students that patronized our bar. We split tips. We were family, and it was obvious.

You’d think that I am bringing this dichotomous symbolism to the forefront to next tell you that the concept of teamwork in a remote-setting, has disintegrated with each day that I work in my home office behind a screen. But, I think it moreseo takes some deconstruction of that very term– teamwork– to reimagine how this new, virtual/hybrid world, can foster a type of office culture. 

My current colleagues and clients know my children by name-and I know theirs. On Tuesday, my 9-year-old gave a 30-second presentation on axolotls because she overheard the term during our team icebreaker. My 3-year-old facetimes my colleagues’ toddlers, and they “play together” in our playroom– through a screen. 

And, many of us think that one day the pandemic will be over, and we will simply go back to our old ways, but I’m not sure it’s really that simple. In a world of new COVID variants, monkeypox, and honestly, the social-anxiety that many of us have accrued after being solo for two-ish years, things are just not going to be the same.

So supervisors, middle managers, directors, team leads… I’m talking to you! How can you make space to build a bright, new, normal for your employees? Here are some changes that, between my own company and my clients’ organizations, I have seen and would like to see more organizations– and the individuals within them– implement.

Be (and Stay) Responsive to the Needs of Lead Parents + Caregivers

Just because pandemic-protocols have been lifted in many schools, this doesn’t mean that parents and their children are ready to go back to school like they did before. I, specifically, share a home with a three-year old human. Two of her few years on this planet, she has lived in the world of COVID. She watches screens much more than her older siblings ever did at that age. (How else was I going to have back-to-back meetings during a pandemic with a toddler? Cocomelon is my work mantra.)

And this fall, when my older children go back to school, they’ll be able to resiliently “bounce back” into the reality of schools that they mostly remember. They’ll be excited to be able to have lunch with their friends again and ride the bus and carpool and go to recess and play sports. But my youngest? Well, it’s going to be a battle. 

She is going to wonder why should she have to go to school, when for the past two years she’s hung out with Peppa Pig on the couch behind my office? When her little eyes have poked over my screen and she’s learned our own version of sign language to request, another snack, Mommy? 

So, friends, give grace to the parents that are returning to work– be it in an office or home office– while their children are transitioning to school again. We’re separating with some confused little humans. Heck, us parents don’t even have a work bag anymore. We don’t know where the lids are to our emotional support coffee mugs.

For the times when organizations need in-person staffing or events, provide childcare for your community engagement opportunities. Funders, fund this. 

Don’t forget to celebrate

There’s a lot happening as we re-enter civilization. I do not have enough magnets to hold to my fridge the amount of wedding invitations for those who have postponed since March 2020. It’s important to continue celebrating. This world is scary. I’ve spoken before about resting as a form of activism, and I wholeheartedly believe that there is space to also celebrate. Celebrate our organizations’ wins. Celebrate the individuals within these organizations. Celebrate making it to work– to even your home office– in the morning. This work is hard, and we need to continue uplifting and empowering one another if we are going to push forward in activism together. 

Reimagine your abundant and scarce resources 

Many organizations are probably realizing that providing office space is an increasingly obsolete cost. For those organizations that have sold their buildings, or moved to a co-working space, consider the following: equipping your remote employees with home office stipends to cover the costs of wifi, cellphones, and comfortable desk furniture. I don’t know how many clients who are working from their kitchen tables while their spouses use the home office. Some of them even have to stagger their calls because they don’t have office spaces with doors to drown out the sound. My family, specifically, had to renovate our entire basement in order to establish a secluded room for me to work in a quiet environment. And yet, I’m currently writing this post with a daughter laying under my desk on her tablet and the other waiting for me to lift my eyes above the screen to request a yogurt. 

For those of you who are staying in the building, or using a co-working space, consider providing transportation stipends for your employees to fund, at least, public transportation. Many families are down to a single–or no– vehicle. 

Remain Flexible, Practice Gratitude

The world shifts in new ways every day, as do employees’ lives. Be cognizant of what is happening within your teams and adjust to support them accordingly. 

Acknowledge the privilege of a flexible work environment and practice communal care. This might look like providing resources and volunteer support to organizations that require an on-site presence. Encourage your network to donate to partners providing on the ground support. 

It’s time to think about the long game

If we want to promote a healthy workplace culture, we have to honor that team building and teamwork have looked different for the past two years. Things that we thought promoted teamwork– like in-person happy hours and activities, aren’t what’s needed for a healthy culture and strong team. We need our employees to be able to affordably access a suitable work environment despite the consequences that they have faced during a pandemic.

Brooke Black is the Operations + Content Manager at Gladiator Consulting. As a nonprofit leader and charter school administrator, Brooke wore many hats and gained momentum in and passion for philanthropy. Working in education, she recognized her desire to work with populations and communities disparately impacted by policy, the need for racial equity among our children (and adults), and her ability to connect organizations serving those populations to the resources necessary to reduce inequity.