Fast Forward to the Future of Work: How to build resilience in the new normal

As we return from the Summer break, many of us may be asking ourselves: what now? The holidays have been far from normal with travel restrictions, social distancing and mandatory use of face masks in public places. Furthermore, having to book a seat in a restaurant or a timeslot in the swimming pool left little room for spontaneous activities. The holiday may not have been enough to relieve fatigue and stress. And the return to work - whether homeworking, in the office or a combination of both - won’t feel much different from the past six months since the lock down. How can you build resilience in the new normal? How to turn uncertainty into possibility?

Unexpected and unprecedented global events such as COVID-19 not only have a major impact on the economy but also on our personal lives. The unique combination of economic distress and personal stressors such as job insecurity, health concerns, loneliness and isolation experienced during the health crisis pose a substantial risk to the resiliency of people and organizations. According to McKinsey’s consumer-sentiment surveys, people are spending more time inactively consuming digital content.

Waiting for a vaccine and hoping for a return to normal is a risky approach. It could take a long time, the economic impact is uncertain, and organizations may not survive. Depending on their sectors, the crisis has hit organizations very differently. But the common factor for all employers is that they need to create a work environment in which people are physically protected. Moreover, they need to manage exhaustion and stress that comes from the pressure to perform during a crisis.

Building resilience is vital to surviving and thriving during times of change. Organizations would do well to focus on wellbeing: from creating a healthy and safe work environment to running programs to support physical and mental wellbeing. And there are actions you can take yourself to build up your personal resilience. Often, small changes in your day-to-day routine can make a big difference. Here are some tips:

  • Practice deep work – concentrate without distractions

Working from home can be a challenge at the best of times. It's particularly true when there are too many distractions, such as having to teach and look after children or having several family members working and studying in the same house. The home workspace is often the kitchen table or a rapidly converted bedroom; a very different setting to the purpose-built office environment. On top of that, most of us had to learn new technologies and ways to collaborate with colleagues online, whilst stepping up our performance to ensure business continuity. It is easy to feel a little overwhelmed and stressed. Add anxiety to that stress when we see that the end of the crisis may still take some time and the new way of (online) working is rapidly becoming the norm.

There are plenty of (free) online courses and mindfulness trainings available to learn how to stay calm and focused. But particularly when there are too many distractions, it can be very helpful to plan regular “deep work” slots in your agenda. Cal Newport explored the concept of maintaining a laser focus on work in his book Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He describes ‘deep work’ as being a time where you are really concentrating without distractions. When you are in your flow, you perform your best and thrive.

Training ourselves to do a few big things well every day – rather than hundreds of little things half-heartedly – will increase our productivity and our internal profile with our employer. We'll stand out amongst a crowd of distracted multi-taskers.

  • Block out time in your calendar (Newport recommends a minimum of 90 minutes). As with an appointment or meeting, you’re giving the task the attention it deserves. Stick to the time allocated.
  • Adopt the 20% rule. When setting yourself a deadline, reduce it by 20%. By adding a sense of urgency to the task, you will be driven to scramble with as much intensity as possible to complete the job on time.
  • Prepare for deep work. Clean your desk, hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door or move to a quiet space when completing deep work. These things will tell your brain to switch off the persistent noise of the rest of the world and focus on getting the task done.
  • Stick to a zero-tolerance policy. Even briefly glancing at your phone or inbox will cut your cognitive capacity to focus. According to research it can take up to 25 minutes just to regain focus after being distracted. To avoid this, don’t allow any distractions to creep in when you’re engaged in deep work – close your inbox and turn your phone off!

In addition to mental fitness, take up regular physical activity to reduce stress and clear your head. Plan a short walk, go for an early morning run or try desk yoga exercises to flex tense muscles. And to flex your brain muscle, a few minutes just staring out of the window doing nothing helps to clear your mind and make room for fresh ideas.

  • Embrace the power of purpose

During times of crisis, having a purpose can help you face uncertainty. Research conducted by McKinsey during the pandemic shows that people with a strong sense of purpose tend to be more resilient and show a better recovery from negative events. When comparing those who are “living their purpose” at work with those who say they aren’t, the former report levels of wellbeing and engagement that are five times higher. Employees who find their purpose matches their work are more productive and often outperform peers. As individual purpose directly affects both health and motivation, it is vital for organizations to embrace the power of purpose. It is an important contributor to higher levels of employee engagement, stronger organizational commitment and increased levels of wellbeing.

Academic research shows that an individual’s sense of purpose isn’t fixed or static. What we find meaningful can evolve over time and sometimes shifts quickly. Particularly in response to life-changing events such as the current pandemic or a bereavement. A drive for personal achievement may change into a need to contribute to the community. Or a motivation for independence could switch toward stability in times of uncertainty. Regularly reflect on your purpose in life and in work, and look for projects or activities that best match your drive to stay energized, committed and happy at work.

  • Cultivate a growth mindset

Times of crisis or change often bring challenges that require a new approach, a different mindset and new skills that may be outside your field of expertise. Would you embrace the challenge, or would you think you couldn’t cope? If the latter is the case, think again as you have the ability to train your brain. It’s not grades and qualifications that will allow you to rise to the challenge, it’s having a growth mindset.

According to Dr Carol Dweck, a world-renowned Stanford University psychologist, success in school, work, and sports can be dramatically influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities. People with a fixed mindset—believing that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset — believing that abilities can be developed. If you put in effort and practice and take on a new challenge you can grow your brain’s capacity to learn and solve problems.

The brain is remarkably ‘plastic’. When a person practices a task or activity, groups of neurons in the brain fire together to create electrochemical pathways, and it strengthens the connections between those cells. Dr Carol Dweck found that if a group of students was taught to push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, they outperformed others. The neurons in their brains were making new and stronger connections.

Neuroscience shows that the mind can adapt when challenged; the key is to find the sweet spot where the right amount of effort leads to the task being accomplished. How to start? Learn by engaging in tasks that might challenge you – for instance by writing your first blog, learning a new skill or taking up a task outside your daily routine.

Future-proof

With the increasing speed of change, unprecedented events and disruptive forces it is of vital importance to put humans at the center of every organization. Physical and mental wellbeing are key drivers for a healthy and successful organization. But it is not only the responsibility of the organization. On a personal level, you also need to take ownership and accountability to build your resilience and become future-proof. Then, help and guide others who need some support. We’re in this together. We’re in it for the long run.

Looking forward to hearing your views and tips!

References.

EY global workforce report / how leaders can protect employee wellbeing during covid-19

McKinsey Insights / Decisive actions to emerge stronger in the next normal and A global view of how consumer behaviour is changing

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About Marianne Hewlett

Senior Vice President and member of the Scientific Community
Marianne Hewlett is a Senior Vice President at Atos and a seasoned marketeer and communications expert. Passionate about connecting people, technology and business, she is a member of the Atos Scientific Community where she explores the Future of Work and the impact of technology on individuals, organizations and society. She is a strong ambassador for diversity and inclusivity – and particularly encourages female talent to pursue a career in IT – as she believes a diverse and happy workforce is a key driver for business success. As an ambassador for the company’s global transformation program Wellbeing@work, she explores new technologies and ways of working that address the needs of current and future generations of employees. A storyteller at heart, she writes about the human side of business and technology and posts include insights into the future of work, the science of happiness, and how wellbeing and diversity can drive success.

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