New Normal, New Stress?

New Normal, New Stress?

As the pandemic situation evolved in phases, new stress points emerged at every turn. Are we looking at more turmoil, rather than a rosy new normal? 

Stress at the workplace was never new. However, the constantly evolving workplace scenario over the last two years has given rise to new stress factors. If for nothing else, the series of changes that the employees are going through have made things tough to cope with. Leave aside actual work-related stress – even the pandemic-induced remote communication is now proving to be a great stressor. Everyone is wary of handling far too many WhatsApp groups, a barrage of messages during and after work hours, and constant interruptions over Teams, Skype, or emails to answer a variety of queries.

It now appears in hindsight that the COVID disruption had indeed happened in three distinct phases so far – the uncertain 2020, a sorted out 2021, and a reluctant back-to-office 2022. Each of these phases had its own stress point. Additionally, shifting gears between these phases also proved disruptive in general.

The three phases of pandemic disruption

Phase I – 2020: This was a phase of fear and uncertainty all over the world. No one knew where the world was headed to and how deadly the virus would eventually turn out to be. As governments worldwide clamped strict lockdowns to contain the spread of infection, people feared losing everything they considered to be of value: their lives, means of livelihood, children’s education, all sorts of essential services, amenities, entertainment, leisure – and above all, normal human interaction. All businesses took the hardest hit in this phase. While every industry scurried to move all transactions online, people tried their best to adapt to new technologies and cope. Pandemic uncertainty and insecurity at this phase equally affected those who could work from home (WFH) and those who couldn’t.

Phase II – 2021:By the time a year was through, the world started sorting out things. Vaccines were introduced, nearly all businesses had the online infrastructure in place, those who initially found working from home to be a mess now managed better, and those frontline employees who still had to attend work in person had their protective routines in place. Overall, people were more aware now of the disease – how exactly it spreads and to what extent it can harm. By now, healthcare support for COVID-related issues was far more robust, and the availability of medical facilities proved to be a great confidence booster. Lockdowns were phased out and businesses swung back into action. Work from home continued in many sectors – and employees found they could balance their personal and professional commitments far better in this remote mode of working. Productivity was not affected, too.

Phase III – 2022:This is the current phase where most companies are trying to bring their people back to the office. But now it seems calling them back can be challenging – because many are even ready to resign than forego the WFH advantage. Employers are nervous because WFH has not affected productivity – which means they cannot put forth the fiscal angle to drive their employees back. 2021 had allowed employees to chalk out a comfortable routine that offered them the best of both worlds. Getting jolted out from that now creates new stress points – the impact of which none had anticipated before. A compromise is being attempted by gradually introducing a hybrid work. But the right balance is yet to be struck and a lot of analysis is going on to find out the best possible hybrid solution. None seem to have struck the right balance yet. This uncertainty has again introduced new stress points both among workers and managers.

The evils of not going to office

There have been industry variations of pandemic stress. Not all suffered equally. During the first and the second phases of the pandemic, it was generally perceived that the industries that could allow unconditional work from home were in the privileged category. Here, IT/ITES emerged at the top – but that was more because that sector always had a robust remote working infrastructure in place.

But despite initial fanfare, WFH gradually revealed its own drawbacks. Longstanding WFH posed an entirely novel set of management challenges with the potential for serious long-term HR disruptions. Especially with regard to communication, WFH can be a tricky issue. This led to hiring people with new kinds of attributes during this period.

Also, since times are uncertain, employees got too edgy if their support requests were not addressed within what “they” felt was a reasonable turnaround time. A software upgrade issue, support services like finance, IT, or medical insurance, or perhaps just routine communication regarding organizational policies – a WHF employee might perceive being “left-out” if these are even slightly delayed in such troubled times. Naturally, most of it is in the mind. But it is indeed reassuring for the remote employee to know that he/she is not the only one facing the issue and that the organization is aware of the lapse. This invariably calms down agitated and anxious minds.

Since the home itself is now the office, work-life balance demands a new definition. Some experts are already calling it “work-life integration”, which is a more inclusive term. It is not just about more time at home – rather just a change in the work ambiance with all the facilities attached to the job still remaining the same. Panic induced by the pandemic has led a lot of people to needlessly work beyond office hours, even if when is no real need. They just want to reassure themselves that their contribution was still being counted, although they are physically away from the office. There is also a prevalent belief that high levels of stress at work is the mark of an “achiever”. Often both workers, as well as leaders, believe that someone who is not insanely busy is not indispensable to the company. In fact, a lot of extremely high-profile companies had sounded this message over decades. This is sure to reflect poorly on the overall quality of work because one who is stressed is bound to be hasty, ambiguous, and indecisive in the long run.

The evils of “now going to office”

The third phase of getting back to office is turning out to be messier than expected. Everyone spoke of the “new normal” – but it looks more like an “old normal but not yet with all previous facilities”. Though the hybrid model was supposed to provide the best of both worlds, it is backfiring in unexpected ways. Many who have returned to their offices partially or fully now realize that while they sit forlorn in empty offices, other team members are still remote – and all communication is still happening online. This means they are investing commute time, expense, and effort without any logical advantage, and without the enthusiasm, in-person office exchanges were supposed to spark off. Even if the workers are rotated – anyone who is attending office on a particular day is having to battle this resentment. As a result, serious demotivation is setting in.

Moreover, most offices that are opening will still enforce some levels of social distancing, mandatory separation, strict personal safety protocols, partitions, and cubicles. All meetings will mostly happen over collaborative platforms, even between people sitting in the same building. Post pandemic, workers across industries are now used to pinging each other over messaging tools. This means employees who loved to be at the office stimulating human interaction will still not be having them. This is emerging to be a new stress point.

The hybrid future: a dish hastily cooked?

The hybrid raised a lot of future hopes– but the let-downs of dish cooked in haste is already showing. The pandemic is not yet over. No one knows what new variant will emerge tomorrow and how deadly could it be. So it is not going to be all smooth sailing for the hybrid work arrangement.

Communication is going to be the biggest challenge to the hybrid workforce model, especially with dispersed teams that lack traditional workplace bonding. Not everyone is a good online communicator, although the same employee might be quite engaging in person. Another risk with having some team members outside the office and some in the workplace is proximity bias. This could be damaging as managers may give preferential treatment to employees present at the office while ignoring remote workers. The fear of missing out could closely follow – and often stem from – proximity bias – leading to toxic dimensions in office politics. This would affect performance management. In a hybrid setting, managers may miss out on individual achievements, not appreciate good contributions in time, or ignore key areas of improvement. And overall, there is a fear of remote employees getting out of sync with their organizational culture, when compared to in-person employees.

What other stress this back-to-office phase will throw up, is anybody’s guess. Right now, everyone on all sides seems unsure of everything. Are we looking at more turmoil, rather than a rosy new normal? 

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