Flexibility required to determine post-pandemic new normal

Old norms have exploded and we do not yet know how well we’ll handle new ones

‘People who have discovered that they work better from home will be demotivated by being wholly, or even partially, pushed back to the office if they cannot see how it is beneficial.’ Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

‘People who have discovered that they work better from home will be demotivated by being wholly, or even partially, pushed back to the office if they cannot see how it is beneficial.’ Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

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The word “normal” is surprisingly modern. It first appeared in the 19th century and usage only took off after the second World War. While the word’s origins are not certain, it most likely derives from “norma”, which is Latin for a carpenter’s square – a tool to ensure a perfect right angle.

Our behaviour is shaped by social norms, which are defined as the shared rules and standards that guide or constrain us. Behavioural science shows that perceptions of normal behaviour matter. People judge others against norms, search for norms to guide them when uncertain and often feel threatened when norms are violated. Striving to establish better norms is part of progress.

This pandemic has quickly and forcibly dismantled norms built up over decades. It has destabilised almost all of our societal structures, disturbing the rhythm of family life, friendship and relationship formation, disrupting working life, education and travel, altering our interactions with food, sport and the arts. Now, as the vaccine rollout completes, we have to decide which norms to return to, which to abandon and which to change. There can only be a so-called “new normal” when there is a new set of norms.

My guess (and it is a guess) is that much of the public discourse on the new normal underestimates the scale of the challenge involved and, perhaps more optimistically, of the opportunity offered. This guess is based on evidence that different people have experienced the pandemic very differently; a temporary disruption for some, life-changing for others.

By shaking up our norms for an extended period, the pandemic has diversified views about what we want society to look like. In short, it has made us more different.

Working from home

Perhaps the most discussed example is working from home. While for many this is not an option, research suggests that more than a third of jobs can be completely undertaken from home and a majority partly so. A substantial spell of homeworking has diversified workers’ perspectives. Some want to work from home as much as possible, some want to return to how things were, with a whole spectrum in between.

There is a mixed picture when it comes to evidence about the possible impact of homeworking. Productivity is hard to measure, but evidence that it will be damaged by allowing people to choose how much to work from home is weak. Other research suggests that, on balance, offering flexibility may be positive, because those who choose to work from home will tend to be those it best suits.

Some large multinationals are convinced that offering a range of homeworking options will now be necessary to attract and keep good staff. Others worry that too much working from home might damage their culture. There are potentially large external impacts for the environment, childcare, rural life, congestion, city economies and more.

Experiences have varied and views differ much more than before the pandemic; our workplace norms have released their grip. Facing such uncertainty and diversity, it may be foolish for employers to impose inflexible systems – to dictate a new normal. People who have discovered that they work better from home will be demotivated by being wholly, or even partially, pushed back to the office if they cannot see how it is beneficial.

This last point encapsulates the issue. Previously there was a norm: workers, for the most part, showed up. Now there is not and, given their experience, many do not see the logic of reimposing one.

Workplaces highlight the more general point. Norms about other walks of life are adrift too. These include attendance at family occasions, good locations to live, willingness to travel, everyday social life, shopping patterns, working abroad and (again) more.

Where our new norms settle will depend also on the ongoing level of risk from the disease. Talk about endgames and post-pandemic life is perhaps not right. While the vaccines are doing great work, for some time we are nevertheless likely to be in a moving equilibrium with this virus, with risk levels going through periods of stability punctuated by more rapid change.

Social activity measure

Perceptions of risk and willingness to take risk vary greatly. My team conducts the social activity measure for the Department of the Taoiseach, which measures behaviour and perceptions. We ask how worried people are personally about Covid-19, on a scale from 1 to 10. This year, while average scores have fallen from 7.5 to just over six, variation in responses has hardly changed at all. The August data shows that while a quarter of the population give a score of four or less, almost as many answer nine or 10, with little difference between men and women, or young and old.

These perceptions are connected to people’s behaviour – events they attend, whether they have close contacts, how many people they meet. We find similar patterns across multiple measures. People hold very different perspectives on the pandemic and behaviour differs greatly as a result. At this stage of the pandemic, while almost 20 per cent of adults meet seven or more people from outside their own household over a 48-hour period, more than 30 per cent meet no one at all.

What should we infer from these patterns? In my view, they tell us that even if the threat from the disease subsides, we are a long way off coalescing around new norms.

I would go further. Without established norms, strong differences can lead to disagreement and conflict. Some people may struggle to understand each other’s perspectives. When we see far more risk than other people, we are inclined to view them as reckless; when we see far less, we find them frustratingly timid. “Ah sure, come on, we’re all vaccinated” is more persuasive to some than others.

This means employers have at least two problems: a wide range of preferences for working from home and sharply differing views of how risky it is to be at work. Members of families and groups of friends are likely to surprise each other too by their contrasting willingness or unwillingness to get together in different settings.

For now, the new normal that lies ahead is a blur. Bringing it into focus is likely to need patience, tolerance and flexibility.

Prof Pete Lunn is head of the behavioural research unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute

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