What is Normal?

How many times have we heard, “the new normal.” Or conversely, the longing to return to what was normal. Or an optimistic claim to create a modern normal.  Well, guess what, there is no normal.  Nor was there ever one. We have operated in a disruptive, asymmetrical marketplace for over a century of continuous change. The difference today is the speed of communications that transmit the market conditions that we face 24/7.  This speed brings changes to the forefront of our consciousness, giving the illusion that we are experiencing daily radical new waves of disruption upending our lives. In the minds of many, the changes seem radical, immediate, and often negative. Others relish disruption — real or perceived. In either case, it’s becoming more difficult to sort through it all to understand what it all means and how it matters. And not to be prosaic, but speed kills.

Last week we asked the question: “Is this us?” We concluded that 2024 will offer many challenges. Where we are heading and who we will become at the end of the journey remain undetermined. The speed of delivering news will likely increase, resulting in an inability to step back, process and critically assess the implications for us and society at large. And most critically, what influence will these rapid changes have on who we will become?

Some substantial societal considerations are presenting themselves. So, we are taking a stab at identifying our highly selected list of what is status quo (normal) today in a digitally based, unpredictable world. We’re weighing in on the positives and negatives, and we invite you to add to our list and we’ll share in a follow-up report.

The Seduction of Shiny New Things

  • Generative AI

Everyone is dipping their toes into this untested tech. And how can they not?  According to PitchBook data, “Last year, investments of more than $18 billion by Microsoft, Google and Amazon — in just three companies — represented two-thirds of the global venture investment into generative AI startups.”  We’re pretty confident that the majors are ahead of the rest of us in understanding how GenAI will be integrated into our professional and personal lives. But in the meantime, organizations left, and right are investing in early GenAI programs right on trend with the shiny new thing syndrome. We have suggested a pause and will continue to beat the necessity drum for establishing guardrails that provide frame and structure to guide us through the chaos as it shakes out.

Proof for a pause?  The New York Times lawsuit against OpenAI for scraping its protected content off the internet and reporting it without attribution. Sports Illustrated fired its publisher for printing undisclosed AI content written by fake authors with AI-generated headshots and biographies. Marketing messaging is written by AI programs customized to the interests and search history of individuals. If we don’t take a pause, everything you read could be written just for you, irrespective of what’s truthful. Consider that AI is already making up false citations, creating answers that aren’t based in reality and fact, and has already proven it still hasn’t quite grasped the complexity of humanity and the human mind.

  • Bias

Bias also needs sorting out. Let’s take recruitment as a case in point. As the Harvard Business Review reports, “Concerns around AI bias will lead to more transparency in recruiting tech. A new law in New York City went into effect on January 1 that limits employers’ use of AI recruiting tools and requires organizations to undergo annual bias audits and publicly disclose their hiring metrics. That seems to be a reasonable start.

  • Data Risk

Another trend is data risk. HBR also reveals that “Organizations are increasingly using emerging technologies — artificial intelligence (AI) assistants, wearables, etc. — to collect data about employees’ health, family situations, living conditions, and mental health. While these technologies can enable employers to respond more effectively to employees’ needs, they also have the potential to create a looming privacy crisis.” You can draw your own conclusions about this issue when we don’t pause to set up guardrails.

Workplace Resets

  • Hybrid Work

Remote work isn’t going anywhere. In fact, working from home can be a dealbreaker.  With all the analysis about life/work balance, reports on Gen Z mental health issues, and a new next-gen perspective on a career at any cost, a macro workplace reset is in order. We’ve written about portfolio careers, viewing work as a flow, not siloed, isolated job experiences. And hybrid flexibility needs to include the front lines. Gartner’s research found that “frontline workers are looking for flexibility when it comes to what they work on, who they work with, and the amount they work — in particular, control over and stability in their work schedule, as well as paid leave.”

  • Community

There are clear expectations among younger workers about employers providing a meaningful, empathetic community.  And that goes for the workplace becoming a community center, virtual and physical. Even with the demand for balance, workers are spending the majority of their time at work and depend on the workplace to foster social connections. So, for managers, whether you’re on screen or in the office, the pressure is on to provide more than a place of employment.

Think of it as intentional interactions. And individual choice is the model for successful connection and training. For example, find out how employees prefer to connect with co-workers; don’t assume anything. Happy hours?  Pizza parties? Lunch and learns? Should meetings be on-screen or an all-hands-on-deck meeting? The intention is to deliver authenticity and a safe place for employees to connect and learn.

  • Workplace Bill of Rights

And speaking of well being, HBR states that “leading organizations will create an employee data bill of rights to support employees’ need for healthy boundaries in addition to overall wellbeing.”

The workplace also needs to double as a training ground. HBR states that 51% of Gen Z employees say that their education has not prepared them to enter the workforce. And this includes the gap in strong social skills resulting from years during the pandemic with so few in-person interactions. Communications in general are at risk as well. How many on-screen meetings have you attended where communicating is awkward and uncomfortable?  We need a better system of speaking that includes a new set of physical and language-based cues when we are only online.

  • Hierarchical Change

And finally, workforce hierarchies are causing inequities, real and perceived. Next gens are asking why seniority is inherently unfair. The classic argument of veteran employees receiving more perks and longer vacation times is being questioned by younger workers who argue that they work longer and harder than most of their managers.  So, why are vacation times, for example, biased towards employees with more tenure? The leitmotif of this argument is meritocracy and basing rewards and perks on that measure instead of longevity. The veiled objection is, “Who makes the rules?” And on that note, communication about workplace practices should be clear and unequivocal.  Add to this point of contention, the digital divide is building resentment among younger tech-savvy workers who are continuously asked to input data or solve tech issues for senior employees whom they view as either resisting learning or flat-out unable to adapt to digital platforms. Reverse mentoring is eroding into digital class warfare.

Retooling Leadership Skills

The classic behavior is “hire what you know.” And the result is typically organizations that look and behave like senior management. And decidedly, many workforces do not reflect their customers. Organizations continue to struggle with gender parity, and we all know how few female CEOS run the Fortune 500.  (For the record, 10%.) Now, even DEI is being reconsidered because of its underperforming ROI.

Some discomfort is in the cards. Future leadership is moving toward skill-based, not prior-experience-based. Education may not be a determining factor. Certainly not education in the core industry. For example, the retail CEO of the future will need as much tech prowess as an intuitive understanding of how to merchandise and sell. So, there are two forks in the road, not mutually exclusive. Hire from the outside. Identify where top talent is concentrated and infiltrate those hubs. Expand the roles of gig workers and other alternative networks for potential employees. And/or cross-train high-potential employees and give them in-depth experience across the organization. Upskill rising stars. Think of your organization as a high-performance training ground to strengthen systems thinking, holistic solutions and a broad inter-connected perspective on how to deliver results. To this point, we are passionate about eliminating silo mentalities and silo organizational structures.

Unintended Consequences

Speed results in distributing too much information, too quickly. We cannot process information when so much is barraging us 24/7. We need time to process. We need time to think. Yet we don’t have time as we bow our heads to our devices and try to consume the insane amount of information arriving on our screens. The emerging issues are how to process quickly, how to identify fact versus fiction, and how to force ourselves to take that pause and consider what we need to consider.

If there is any single critical factor with the greatest influence on us professionally and personally in 2024, it will be taking back our personal agency and making choices to improve the quality of our lives.

At 2040, we will always continue to advocate the importance of critical thinking, understand how influence and bias derail us, and seek to recognize the unintended consequences of our actions. This is a North Star matrix for our organizations and ourselves; living mindfully will help change society and who we are for the better.

Editor’s Note: This article is republished with the author’s permission with first publication in 2040 Digital’s newsletter – Issue 142, January 11, 2024.

Posted in: AI, KM, Leadership, Management