There Was No ‘New Normal’

Four years ago this month, we were all given our first ‘work from home’ mandate. A clear, unambiguous instruction from the UK government that, in the grip of a quickly spreading global pandemic, we should all work from home where possible.

And amid the biggest seismic shift of our lifetime, it was an easy instruction to follow. Hunker down and wait patiently until we find a ‘new normal.’ But four years on, the question remains - are we nearly there yet? Are we ever going to find a ’new normal’?

Based on predictions from 2020, 2024 was supposed to be the year when things settled down again, but can we honestly say they have?

For businesses still trying to bounce back from the effects of the pandemic, alongside the long-term effects of Brexit, a cost of living crisis, geopolitical unrest, a Chinese downturn, a possible Trump victory, a looming UK election and an AI tech revolution described by Bill Gates as ‘as fundamental as the creation of…the Internet,’ – and predicted to reshape every industry – the idea that things should be back to ‘normal’ seems laughable. We are still a very long way from ‘normal’. Or even ‘stable.’ And yet, we seem hardwired to pretend that we’ve all bounced back. Isn’t it time to admit that we haven’t?

In a survey of 500 UK business owners. nearly a quarter (23%) of those business owners don’t feel optimistic about their business succeeding in 2024. And who can blame them? Last year, a total of 30,199 UK businesses were involved in some kind of insolvency action. That’s 52% higher than in 2021. Unsurprising when you consider that many firms managed to hold on through the worst of the pandemic, maybe with government support or maybe with a ‘just get through this crisis’ mentality. But with the expectation that things should be settling down by now, and the pressure that comes with the need to think strategically moving forward instead of simply responding to crises, is it such a shock that companies are finding it hard to carry on?

Rising costs (31%), economic volatility (21%) and technological challenges (20%) were given by our respondents as the main three reasons for their outlook, but collectively I think we’re all still chasing this fabled ‘new normal’ that seems to be shifting further and further from our reach.

Instead of sitting with this level of uncertainty and accepting that the setbacks we’ve all suffered in the last four years have had a profound and long-lasting effect on everything from consumer habits, management styles, hybrid working, office locations, health and safety protocols, working hours, company culture and even our attitude to work, many businesses are determined to press on regardless, drilling down on areas they feel they can control.

More than half (51%) of the 500 business respondents said their business’ main priority over the next two years will be improving employee productivity. Inefficient processes (54%), lack of knowledge or skills (46%) and time constraints (63%) were identified as the challenges to performance. But what if the path through these unstable times wasn’t to run from our lack of certainty, but to sit with it? To admit that we’re all still reeling from the aftermath of a traumatic era? To accept that we’re tired from fighting during the toughest times? And to acknowledge that we’re feeling unsettled knowing there is more uncertainty and seismic industry change on the horizon?

Psychologically, patterns and certainty activate reward centres in the brain, whereas ambiguity activates strong threat responses. Perhaps the healthiest response to this perceived ‘threat’ isn’t simply to double down and try harder, rather to embrace our vulnerabilities and acknowledge the human fragility of not being able to predict what will happen next. None of our previous prediction models will fit our current situation. These are unchartered waters and that’s ok. These are STILL unprecedented times.

The request for motivational and inspirational speakers through Speakers Corner has massively risen in recent months, yet the desire is no longer for ‘experts’ who can command a room and tell you how you ‘should’ be doing things – it’s for speakers who talk about ideas, opinions and thoughts; share their vulnerabilities and show how moving through uncertainty in their own lives has led to future success. These are the narratives we’re collectively craving. And these are the processes that will help us build stronger, more resilient businesses moving forward.

The idea of ‘settling back down’ and moving away from ‘unprecedented times’ was a discourse that helped us stay motivated during an incredibly distressing and unsettling time four years ago, but it was never the truth. There is no ‘new normal.’ There probably never will be.

We’re not going to bounce back to exactly how things were pre-pandemic, pre-Brexit, pre-recession, pre-war. Our strength will come in admitting that the ‘new normal’ was a mirage.

It’s time that we all stopped focusing so hard on trying to reach it.