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To be ready for the new normal, start working on these 3 things


Most people know what those numbers mean. On September 11, 2001, a series of unprecedented terror attacks took place right on American soil. Four passenger airliners were commandeered by terrorists; three of them were deliberately crashed into buildings.

As you would imagine, air travel volumes plummeted, throwing airlines into crisis. But after a raft of security measures were introduced in pretty much every airport in the world, air passengers came back. That leads some folks to imagine that we will also shrug off the coronavirus. Here’s the thing, though: fewer than 3,000 people died directly in the 9/11 attacks. As I write this, more than 225,000 have died of Covid-19.

Remember also that we never really put 9/11 behind us. Air travel changed forever. The new security measures introduced from 2001 have never gone away: scanners on, shoes and belts off, laptops out, bodies searched – that’s how we fly now, nearly two decades later. We contained the terror attacks, but only because we maintained stringent and cumbersome security procedures.

And that’s my point. Sure, the pandemic lockdowns will ease in the coming weeks and months. Sure, we’ll all be itching to get back to ‘normal’. But, as I have spelled out here for the past two weeks, that normal will be a new normal – not the same old one. We are staring at a ‘Low-Touch, High-Friction’ world – one in which we do not work or gather or travel or trade in the same old ways. This will be true fairly severely until a vaccine is found and distributed and even beyond, for we will not want to risk an event as disastrous as this pandemic again. 

We will also be coming out of a cataclysmic economic shutdown, which will no doubt cause financial distress for quite a while.

It won’t be a world we are used to; but that doesn’t mean we won’t deal with it. We will, and we should start that process immediately. Some industries and sectors will find this easier than others; but every business has to rethink its norms now.

There are three unquestionable new norms we will all have to deal with: the hygiene revolution; the physical-distancing phenomenon; and the great digital acceleration.

Firstly: personal and public hygiene has ramped up dramatically. Never before have people washed their hands, scrubbed their surfaces, disinfected their purchases, masked their faces or gloved their hands like this. That might reduce over time but it won’t stop. Health and safety is no longer what the worriers do; it’s front and centre now. You have to think about what that means for your organization, its people, practices and products.

Next, physical proximity. A few months from now when someone you’ve just met offers their hand or cheek, will you respond with a shake or a kiss? Nope, I think most of us are going to be observing different physical norms with most people. Physical distancing will become a requirement in public areas, transportation modes, education facilities, offices, hotels, restaurants, bars, sporting events – pretty much everywhere. We won’t be crowding together like before. That throws up a lot to think about for a whole bunch of people and businesses.

And lastly, digital acceleration. One dramatic effect of the social distancing most of us have been forced to uphold has been the huge explosion in remote working and virtual meetings. What might have taken years to effect has happened in two months. Children, oldsters and everyone in between is now familiar with e-commerce, video meetups and online learning. Do you imagine we will just reverse out of that?

Expect profound changes in how we work, learn and socialise to continue in the Low-Touch, High-Friction world of the future. We must all learn how to use digital channels as the norm, not the exception; we must all redesign work to be distributed and asynchronous. Office life may never be the same again. We will of course be meeting up in person, professionally and socially – that’s a given. We have evolved to understand each other as proximate humans, not digital images on screens. And yet. There is a massive digital acceleration happening right now everywhere you look. But are you looking at your own business, profession and career? You may be surprised by what is coming.

So then: three aspects of the new normal to discuss with your team tomorrow (probably on a Zoom meeting): the hygienical, the physical and the digital. They’re not just constraints – they’re also opportunities. Doing your best work will require you to be leading on all three. 

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