In recent months, the term “new normal,” has frequently graced the lips of politicians, business leaders, consumers, workers, teachers and even children. Since COVID-19 erupted into a pandemic, it seems nothing in life is familiar. For many of us, that incudes the workday. As employees shift to working from home, routines have been transformed with virtual meetings, isolation from teammates and a greater emphasis on technology. Even for those who still travel to work, life is simply much different—new restrictions are imposed as others are lifted, and our accustomed social, entertainment and physical outlets are no longer available.
Not all changes have been negative, however. Commuters are dealing with less traffic. The air is cleaner, and the environment is healthier. Employees working from home can skip the road altogether, resulting in reduced food and travel expenses. Some are spending more quality time with family, taking more walks and getting to know their neighbors, albeit from a distance. However, it’s undeniable that, given the choice, most are eager to return to pre-pandemic life. But the “new normal” is upon us, at least for the foreseeable future, and it poses a variety of challenges.
The lack of social in social distancing
The challenge most often cited is, understandably, the social aspect—or lack thereof. For individuals who work with people all day, it can feel isolating and depressing working alone from home. For Holly Haavik, an outgoing and gregarious territory sales manager for Ivoclar Vivadent, a medical device company focusing on the dental industry, a normal pre-COVID-19 workday involved visiting 10 to 12 dental offices. With most dental offices closed during the quarantine, that part of her job shut down completely. “I’m used to being out and about and seeing many people every day,” says Haavik. “For me that’s the biggest hurdle, emotionally. It’s tough to sit at home all day. It’s so different. I’m not a person that has ever wanted to work in front of a computer. All of us who are in sales, we’re people people. That’s what we do—we’re social. That’s definitely been the toughest piece.”
To keep teams motivated and active and to capitalize on the extra time during the downturn, Ivoclar Vivadent has taken the opportunity to have its sales force participate in various virtual trainings to boost their knowledge. Sales representatives learned how to demo devices on Zoom and be more active on social media, using Instagram, for example, to showcase different products. Learning how to connect electronically will likely pay dividends for Ivoclar Vivadent employees. Haavik believes even as shelter-in-place orders are lifted, our new normal will remain—at least for the time being, and perhaps for longer than we’d like.
“As dental offices start to reopen and see more patients, it’s likely that my job will change. I won’t be calling on offices on a regular basis like I used to,” she says. “Instead I’ll only be going in when I have a scheduled appointment. I won’t be doing cold calls and just showing up. I think it will be a long time before I can do that again. I’ll be doing more FaceTime meetings with doctors and staff to demo products that way. I think it’s going to be some time before offices are comfortable having somebody just walk in. They are implementing new protocols to protect patients and staff. Some offices are having people wait in their cars and calling them to come in [versus waiting in a waiting area].”
To cope with the social isolation, Haavik has not only taken advantage of Zoom and social media for work purposes, but also to stay connected with friends and family. She has also tried to maintain regular contact on a personal level with some coworkers. “I’ve continued to meet with my book club on Zoom,” says Haavik. “We’re staying connected that way. I’ve been to some virtual, social-distancing happy hours with friends and neighbors. I’ve also been setting up regular calls, just casual, off the record calls, with coworkers once a week where we chitchat about how we’re doing.”
The lack of networking opportunities go hand-in-hand with the social isolation workers feel at home. For professionals and business owners who rely on regular networking events and meetings to develop new business opportunities and stay connected, social distancing can have dire financial consequences. Local chambers of commerce have tried to alleviate some of this burden by creating virtual networking events, as well as helping chamber members find resources for funding through the Sonoma Economic Development Board, the Small Business Development Center, and other government agencies.
“When the shelter-in-place hit, we wondered what we could do since we couldn’t meet face-to-face and continue to have our weekly networking events,” says Lisa Orloff, executive director of the Rohnert Park Chamber of Commerce.
“We saw that the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce was doing virtual events using Zoom, so we borrowed their idea. We’ve done a lot of networking mixers. Usually one business hosts it, but now since it’s virtual, a couple businesses can host it together. A business gets seven to 10 minutes to talk about their business, either with PowerPoint, by a virtual tour or by sharing their website. It’s a great way for those attending to get to know other businesses and what they have to offer.”
Besides these networking mixers, the chamber also continued its monthly networking Noon Times Luncheon, now dubbed a “lunch-in,” featuring in-depth speeches by outside voices such as business leaders and government officials. A recent “lunch-in” featured Sue Bonzell, a local radio personality. Additionally, the chamber hosts a “Women in Business” meeting every other month. Under normal circumstances, this would also be at Sally Tomatoes in SOMO Village, but it’s now a Zoom meeting with a featured speaker.
A new routine
Another challenge experienced by those working from home is a lack of routine. While some businesses in Sonoma County have experience with telecommuting because of the recent wildfires that swept through the area and the subsequent power outages, it’s nevertheless difficult to switch to telecommuting full-time for an extended period.
“Our office burnt down in the last fire in 2019 [in Geyserville],” says Maria Barberini, an executive assistant for a major wine producer in Sonoma County. “In 2017, we also had to work from home because they were worried about the fires and our Santa Rosa office was closed. It was a tough couple of years, but it’s easy to jump back in. Every person works on a laptop and everyone has remote access. We have a really good IT department that, as soon as everyone went home in March, went on to make sure everyone had access to what they needed. We did Zoom, Microsoft Team, and they added everything you needed, so you could do exactly what you did in the office.”
While Barberini is grateful to continue her work, she says it can feel isolating and she misses the daily person-to-person contact. Quickly bouncing ideas off others and encountering her peers on the train are ways of life derailed by the new normal. “I had started to take the train every day last November and there were about five other people from work that took the train, too,” she says. “We could sit and talk—that was nice. I miss that. I like getting up and going to work.”
To maintain some semblance of a routine, Barberini never changed the time on her phone’s alarm clock. She still wakes up, takes a shower and dresses at the same time every day. Then she starts her workday in the living room. But, she jokes that she generally only puts on makeup when there is a Zoom meeting.
Keeping a regular schedule helps maintain mental health and well-being, according to the Center for Workplace Mental Health. They recommend creating and maintaining a routine and schedule, not forgetting to include periodic breaks for recharging.
For those working from home, sharing space in the “new normal” can be a struggle, especially for those with a family. Angela Zarate, a Kaiser pediatrician who lives in Santa Rosa with her husband, two children and a dog, recalls one particularly difficult moment when she had a video appointment with a patient at the same time as her son’s virtual drum lesson.
“The sounds from the drums practically reverberated throughout the whole house, so I thought I would go into the garage, but that seemed louder than ever,” recalls Zarate. “So I did the video call from my car. However, while it was chilly in the house and I had on a sweater, the car was sweltering hot, and I couldn’t keep from sweating throughout the whole call.”
With multiple people in the house doing virtual work or school meetings, finding a quiet place to work, talk and meet can be a challenge. “A number of us are really struggling with unsuitable working conditions,” says Nicholas Bloom, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) whose research in the past has shown the benefits of working from home when the environment is suitable, the choice is optional and it is generally done part time. “I’ve heard from a lot of people who are struggling with sharing space and looking after kids. One spouse works in the living room in the morning while the other looks after the kids, and in the afternoon they switch. By keeping a schedule it’s easier to plan meetings with colleagues.”
Some workers have also tried to alleviate the problem be setting up designated spaces in their home for each family member in which to work. Some rooms, or parts of rooms, can be converted to work space—even a closet can accommodate a desk in some cases.
Maintaining mental health
Recent data shows that the new normal has taken a toll on people’s mental health. According to data from IQVIA, a health-research firm, prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications in the U.S. rose 10.2 percent in March 2020, compared to March of the previous year. Prescriptions for antidepressants rose 9.2 percent in the same period. The American Psychiatric Association reports that more than one-third of Americans say the pandemic was having a “serious impact” on their mental health, according to a survey released in March.
“In most instances, having structure and routine is very important for people’s mental health,” says Thomas Carollo, M.D., assistant chief of the department of mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente. “This was obviously a significant, abrupt change and one that was not planned for, of course. People were suddenly in this situation where they were asked to do their work very differently. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I think there’s going to be a lot of innovation that is going to come out of this—it already has for our group. But the sudden change can be jarring and can certainly trigger stress and anxiety.”
One industry in which Carollo has seen a lot of recurring stress and anxiety issues since the shelter-in-place orders went into effect has been in education. Almost overnight, teachers were forced to change how they perform their occupation, learning how to use technology they may not have been familiar with. While most found their footing over time, the abrupt change created a lot of initial strain and concern.
To help combat mental health issues during the pandemic, Carollo recommends traditional remedies for stress and anxiety, including adequate and consistent sleep, regular exercise and time for stress-relieving activities. In addition, one should find ways to regularly connect with friends and family, whether through Zoom or a phone call. When people experience sadness and depression they have a tendency to withdraw, he says, which can be even more detrimental. Making small changes, daily or weekly, can help individuals get out of a slump and motivate them to move on. “Try to create some sort of routine or structure to your day so that you have an expectation of what is going to happen, what comes next and feel settled and in control,” says Carollo. “First and foremost, find a new normal, find that new routine and way of going about your day and going about your work.”
The new normal
In almost every industry and profession, changes in every-day work and how we interact with clients, customers and colleagues will remain. While everyone is curious, and perhaps anxious, as to what life will look like moving forward, most would agree that our workplaces will change for good in some ways.
Bloom foresees some companies embracing more telecommuting options for employees. Already since May, Twitter and Facebook announced they would let their employees work from home on a permanent basis, even after the pandemic restrictions end. For this to be optimal, however, Bloom recommends that employers incorporate part-time telecommuting for employees, scheduling it regularly so in-person meetings can be easily planned for. Also, research shows that not everybody prefers this strategy, so making it optional, by choice of the employees, is most advantageous. Finally, telecommuting should be viewed as a privilege, with under-performers warned and recalled to the office if necessary.
“I’m not recommending getting rid of offices at all. I recommend increasing the intensity of working from home, post-COVID,” says Bloom. “My prediction, pre-COVID, was that 5 percent of work days were from home. So roughly, the average American was spending an average of one working day a month at home. During COVID, the numbers look more like 35 percent—a seven-fold increase. Post-COVID, I predict the numbers will be more like 15 to 20 percent of working days at home. By no means is the office going to disappear. The share of our time in the office will probably shrink from 95 to probably 80 percent. It’s a reduction, not a cataclysmic drop.”
Until the dust settles on our current work climate, the change seems nearly calamitous at times. But whatever the new normal looks like moving forward, there’s no doubt that innovation will continue, and technology will make telecommuting simpler and easier. Social distancing may be here to stay, in some form or another, but both employers and employees will undoubtedly learn to navigate this new way of living life, and potentially discover more productive, profitable workspaces and businesses.