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Why the big rush to return to 'normal'​?

Do we now find ourselves living in a 'new normal' world? No, not really.

Look up the term 'passive-aggressive' in the modern Dictionary and, if there's any justice in this world, you really should find this charming note from Cabinet Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg as a visual depiction of the term. It really is a masterclass in antagonism.

The note, which has now been widely shared across social media and national press (not in a positive way) states: "Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon." It was left on the empty desks of civil servants.

Just a handful of years ago, it would have quietly passed under the radar and certainly not fuelled many a newspaper headline. In early 2020, working from home was very much the exception rather than the norm, and flexible working was largely frowned upon in male-dominated sectors like - oh yes - politics.

But we're not in 2020 anymore. Far from it. The last 24 months have ushered in societal change on a scale that hasn't been seen since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Eyes have been opened to new ways of working and living. And now that the genie has escaped, it's going to take much more than the blusterings of a few old-school MPs, desperately trying to cling on to a sense of order in a world that has grown and matured, to put it back inside Aladdin's lamp.

Entering the 'new normal'

The phrases 'lockdown' and 'the new normal' must be two of the most over-used terms in recent history; they also seem to go hand-in-hand in terms of when they were first utilised.

It has seemed like, ever since that first fateful day when individuals were told to temporarily live and work from home to avoid the spread of coronavirus, industry leaders, corporate analysts and business correspondents alike have speculated ad nauseam about 'the new normal' and what our lives in the future would look like.

Well, it's April 2022 and we are now more than two years on from the first Covid outbreak.

Do we now find ourselves living in a 'new normal' world? No, not really.

Right now, we seem to be in the 'in-between' bit, caught in a tug-of-war between traditional ways of working and living and a dynamic new future, filled with rich possibilities. Are the days of five days a week spent working in an office now a thing of the past? Most likely, in many sectors (sorry, Rees-Mogg): the four-day week movement is gathering momentum fast, with nearly three-quarters of UK office workers wanting to deliver 100% productivity in 80% of the time. Will we eschew core working hours and instead embrace the most productive hours for us as individuals, working with autonomy? Potentially; that's certainly how I work now as a freelancer, alongside many of my peers in the creative sector. Will we be happier when we do so? Who knows - but clearly the old way wasn't fit for purpose.

Is 'normality' overrated?

There were a lot of things that I sorely missed when locked inside my home during that first lockdown. I missed being able to see my family and friends. I missed heading out to a restaurant, the cinema or my local pub. I missed coming together in worship at church. I missed spontaneity. I missed freedom.

On the face of things, we now have our freedom back. The UK adult population is largely vaccinated, Covid is seemingly now an endemic rather than a pandemic, and there's more chance of a snowball surviving in the hottest pit of Hades than there is of this Government convincing the British public to follow any more of its 'restrictions' in good faith.

Yet are we truly free to return to 'normal' - and are we ready to do so?

No, not really. As Viv Groskop has so acutely observed in this excellent piece on returning to normal after Covid, navigating work and life still isn't simple as we all try and live with this virus:

"The trouble is, this [current] blur is not uncomplicated. For example, in my brain right now: “Should I use up one of the precious lateral flow tests left in our stash ahead of a dinner I’m going to tonight? I’ve been in contact with a lot of people this week, some of whom have mentioned they know people with Covid… One of the friends who will be there tonight has a husband who is shielding… OK, I think I will. I don’t need to… But it’s the right thing.”

There's lots of questions about how best to navigate day-to-day life at the moment, but not many answers. This simply isn't the time to be making big decisions about the future. Why? Because we're not out of the woods yet when it comes to the impact of this pesky pandemic.

Rees-Mogg clearly isn't alone in his desire to push people back into the traditional workplace, fast. The sense of unease about employees working from home dates back to pre-Covid times and largely comes down to trust: can a worker be trusted to deliver a high calibre of work without being surrounded by their colleagues and, of course, bosses? Taking this outdated and flawed viewpoint as the starting point, it's only natural that, with hopefully the worst of the pandemic now in the rearview mirror, there will be a big drive back into the workplace for many. Luckily, this won't apply to me.

I'm immensely grateful that the circumstances caused by the pandemic - namely an unexpected redundancy that ended up being the best career choice I never made - mean that I, at least, don't have to feel under pressure to 'return to normal.' There's a lot about lockdown life that I enjoyed and leaving 'normal' work patterns behind has allowed my creativity to soar: picking my own hours, creating a workspace that makes me smile, working around my family and no more commuting. Thank the sweet heavens for that last one especially.

There's simply no way that I'd wish to 'return to normal' because, quite frankly, there wasn't much about the hustle, bustle, frantic and reactive pace of 'normal life' that I enjoyed or that buoyed my soul. The pandemic gave me the time to pause, reflect and focus on what's important in life - and it's short-sighted to think that this hugely traumatic period won't have brought this same perspective to many others.

Now isn't the time to rush back into the noise. Now is the time to take stock of what happened, what we've learnt, and decided how we want to live our lives now going forward, now that we truly appreciate what a blessing it is to live our lives with freedom.

So: here's to the true 'new normal' - the one that I hope we all get the chance to define for ourselves and our families.


Ben Veal MCIPR is the founder & director of Second Mountain Comms, a boutique consultancy that helps purpose-driven companies and charities to reach new heights through meaningful communications: compelling content, proactive PR and sound strategy for a brave new world.


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